The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928
Falconetti in Carl Th. Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc”, 1928. Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis
The Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-Ray cover
Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc, 1412 – 1431) is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Hundred Years’ War and was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint.
Joan of Arc was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee, a peasant family, in north-east France. Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orleans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.
After having led numerous military battles against the English during the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc is captured near Compiegne and eventually brought to Rouen, Normandy to stand trial for heresy by French clergymen loyal to the English. Her judges try to make her say something that will discredit her claim or shake her belief that she has been given a mission by God to drive the English from France.
The trial of Joan of Arc was politically motivated and it’s one of the most famous trials in history. After Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon declared her guilty she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431, dying at about nineteen years of age.
In 1456, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, debunked the charges against her, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr. In the 16th century she became a symbol of the Catholic League, and in 1803 she was declared a national symbol of France by the decision of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) is a 1928 silent French film based on the actual record of the trial of Joan of Arc. The film was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and stars Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. It is widely regarded as a landmark of cinema, especially for its production, Dreyer’s direction and Falconetti’s performance, which is often listed as one of the finest in cinema history.
The representation of Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s masterpiece is radically different from the image of her as a national warrior heroine in shining armour that was found in every French schoolbook, and the director almost completely leaves out the historical events of the Hundred Years’ War. The sets were big and costly but severely stylised, almost abstract looking in their sparseness. Dreyer places his camera in positions that rarely afford the observer an overview of the space in which the action is taking place. In consequence, all attention is concentrated on the spiritual and psychological confrontation between Joan and her judges, which is underscored by the dynamic, fast cutting and, not least, by the gigantic close-ups that lay bare every nuance of the characters’ reactions.
“In order to give the truth, I dispensed with “beautification.” My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs… Rudolf Mate, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism.”
Carl Theodor Dreyer: Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc
Prior to its release, the film was controversial due to French nationalists’ skepticism about whether a Danish person could direct a film that centered on one of France’s most revered historical icons. Dreyer’s final version of the film was cut down due to pressure from the Archbishop of Paris and from government censors. For several decades it was released and viewed in various re-edited versions that had attempted to restore Dreyer’s final cut. In 1981 a film print of Dreyer’s final cut of the film was finally discovered in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway and re-released. Despite the objections and cutting of the film by clerical and government authorities, it was a major critical success when first released and has consistently been considered one of the greatest films ever made since 1928.
On 28 March 2018, The Criterion Collection will release a new digitally restored copy of The Passion of Jean of Arc in DVD and Blu-Ray.
Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889 – 1968) was a Danish film director. He is regarded by many critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest directors in cinema. His best known films include The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).
Dreyer was born illegitimate in Copenhagen, Denmark. His birth mother was an unmarried Scanian maid, who gave him up for adoption immediately. He spent the first two years of his life in orphanages until his adoption by Dreyer family and was named Carl Theodor after his adoptive father. His adoptive parents were emotionally distant and his childhood was largely unhappy. But he was a highly intelligent school student, who left home and formal education at the age of sixteen. He dissociated himself from his adoptive family, but their teachings were to influence the themes of many of his films.
As a young man, Dreyer worked as a journalist, but he eventually joined the film industry as a writer of title cards for silent films and subsequently of screenplays. He was initially hired by Nordisk Film in 1913. His first attempts at film direction had limited success, and since the Danish film industry was in financial ruin he left Denmark to work in the France. While living in Paris with his wife, he met Jean Cocteau, Jean Hugo and other members of the French artistic scene.
In 1928 he made his first classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc and four years later Vampyr, a surreal meditation on fear. Both films were box office failures, and Dreyer did not make another movie until 1943.
Denmark was by now under Nazi occupation, and his Day of Wrath had as its theme the paranoia surrounding witch hunts in the seventeenth century in a strongly theocratic culture. With this work, Dreyer established the style that would mark his sound films: careful compositions, stark monochrome cinematography, and very long takes. In more than a decade before his next full-length feature film, Dreyer made two documentaries. In 1955, he made Ordet (The Word) based on the play of the same name by Kaj Munk. The film combines a love story with a conflict of faith. The Word was the first time Dreyer had a film unanimously proclaimed a “masterpiece” by Danish critics. Internationally, the film was a big hit as well, winning the Golden Lion for best feature at the 1955 Venice Film Festival and an American Golden Globe for best foreign film the following year. Dreyer’s last film was 1964’s Gertrud. Although seen by some as a lesser film than its predecessors, it is a fitting close to Dreyer’s career, as it deals with a woman who, through the tribulations of her life, never expresses regret for her choices.
Dreyer died of pneumonia in Copenhagen, on 20 March 1968, at age 79.
Falconetti in a French postcard, by Editions Sid, Paris (ca. 1920’s?)
Renee Jeanne Falconetti (1892 – 1946) -sometimes credited as Maria Falconetti- was a French stage and film actress of Corsican-Italian ancestry, born in Pantin outside Paris. Growing up poor, Falconetti was schooled by nuns who did not much encourage her acting ambitions. Her fortunes improved when she met a much older factory owner whose she became secretary. Against all odds, Falconetti was admitted to the Conservatory, where she trained under the tutelage of Eugene Sylvain, who years later would play the grand inquisitor in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
During World War I, Falconetti entertained the French troops and started getting small parts on stage. She became established in the early 1920s, mainly playing “Boulevard roles” (light comedies) but also performing some classic repertoire and doing a fair bit of singing.
Dreyer discovered Falconetti while she was performing La Garconne, a scandalous play about a free thinking feminist. By the time Dreyer watched her act she was already a celebrated stage artiste, and had appeared in one film, La Comtesse de Somerive (1917). Falconetti was 35 years old when she played the role of 19-year-old Joan of Arc in La Passion. During nine months of filming with Dreyer, Falconetti endured some very tough and demanding work conditions but poured everything she had into her performance. Her portrayal is widely considered one of the most astonishing performances ever committed to film, and it would remain her final cinematic role. The emotional highlight of the shoot was the scene that required her to cut her hair, something she had agreed to in her contract. Many technicians are said to have cried with her during that scene.
“…in Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
Carl Theodor Dreyer: Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc
In 1929, Falconetti was at the peak of her career. She acquired her own theatre, though it quickly went bankrupt because of mismanagement. When her millionaire benefactor passed away, she became increasing unstable and unreliable in her professional life, although she still maintained the favour of the Boulevard audiences. In the early 1930s the public spoke more of her extravagances than her performances. In 1935 she was singing in a cabaret under a pseudonym and acting in a play with Louis Jouvet. It was the last time she acted in France. Falconetti left France and spent a few years in Italy and Switzerland. Although she was almost broke, she maintained a frivolous lifestyle. As her financial situation deteriorated, she headed to South America, in 1942. After spending a year in Rio, she arrived in Buenos Aires in 1943. By now she had lost what remained of her fortune, presumably from horse-track gambling. Though Buenos Aires was full of expatriate French actors, she only managed to form a small company of amateurs, which performed four plays at a small, insignificant theatre. To make ends meet, she gave elocution classes to young French-Argentines.
As the years passed, her activity slowed. When she attempted to make a theatrical comeback after World War II she was heavily overweight. Falconetti passed away on 12 December 1946 under mysterious circumstances. Some sources say she died as the result of a self-imposed crash diet. Her remains were entombed in an Argentine cemetery until 1960, when they were cremated. Her ashes now rest in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Joan of Arc
Wikipedia: The Trial of Joan of Arc
The Criterion Collection: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Wikipedia: The Passion of Joan of Arc
IMDb: La passion de Jeanne d’Arc
Wikipedia: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Danish Film Institute – Carl Theodor Dreyer
Wikipedia: Maria Falconetti
European Film Star Postcard: Maria Falconetti
NY Times, March 31, 1929: “POIGNANT FRENCH FILM”
Carl Theodor Dreyer: “Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc”
Mark Cousins & Lars Von Trier on Carl Dreyer
Excerpt from 2011 documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey