I was around eleven or twelve when I became infatuated with Joan of Arc, reading biographies of her and loving the idea of a maiden warrior for France unfurling her flag and taking the field for God and King. That was the Joan who came to me, I suspect via a book aimed at pre-teens. She was feisty and strong and above all not hemmed in by a conventional sense of what women can or cannot do.
The Carl Dreyer film shows a rather different Joan. His Joan has lost her last battle and is on trial for heresy, with the penalty for a wrong answer potential burning at the stake. His The Passion of Joan is a 1928 silent film that uses intense close-ups to convey its moods. The movie alternates tensely between closeups of Joan and closeups of her accusers and the one priest well-disposed to her case. Coming out, as it did, a year after talkies, the film was always out of sync with its times. I saw it recently in the director’s cut, accompanied by an original and quite stirring score that enhanced the mood.
The film is an idiosyncratic masterpiece about a truly unique and stirring figure in world history. The director reconstructed a medieval city which is shown only in tiny patches, showing an obsessive quality suitable to his subject, Joan. For anyone who watches the film knows that Joan’s over-the-top quality will surface in the end and doom her to the witch’s death she so rightly fears. Obsession. Compulsion. The heeding of inner voices. Saints did it. Artists do it all the time.