The Passion of Joan of Arc Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The story of St Joan of Arc has fascinated writers and artists over the centuries. In the cinema, Ingrid Bergman played the role in 1948, as did Jean Seberg in 1957, neither of them particularly distinguished. In Joan’s native France, Robert Bresson made The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962 and more recently there was Luc Besson’s treatment of the story, with Milla Jovovich in the lead. However, the definitive Joan of Arc has to remain the one made in France in 1928 by Carl Theodor Dreyer. It’s simply one of the greatest films ever made.

The film opens with a shot of a man’s hand opening an ancient bound book containing the transcript of Joan’s trial. Although Dreyer compresses Joan’s trial into one day, most of the dialogue is taken directly from the records: for a silent film it’s quite “talky”. Dreyer’s approach is so realistic at times it’s almost as if we’re watching documentary footage from the 15th Century. But this is definitely a dranmatised film we are watching: Dreyer keeps much of the action in close up, often composing his shots along diagonals to emphasise the opposition between Joan and her prosecutors. None of the cast wore make-up (which was made possible by newly-invented panchromatic black and white film stock), Dreyer sparing us nothing of his characters’ warts, lines and broken skin. This is undoubtedly a film with a spiritual message, enhanced by the intense physicality of its realisation. When Joan suffers a bloodletting, real blood spurts out (from a stand-in’s arm).

Renée Falconetti was a stage actress and this was her only film. But she produces one of the greatest pieces of acting ever seen on film. Her Joan goes through a whole range of emotions: vulnerability and later defiance, to simple wonder when the shadow of a window takes the form of a cross.

The negative of the film was thought lost in a fire. Dreyer put together an alternate version using different takes, but that too was lost in a fire. For years The Passion of Joan of Arc was only available in poor prints that had suffered censorship and other alterations. Then in 1981, a good-quality print of Dreyer’s original version was found in an Oslo mental hospital. That original print, now held by a French archive, has been digitally restored for this DVD release which, unusually for Criterion, is region-coded. (The version history goes into more detail, with clips.) The quality of the transfer is remarkable, especially considering the age of the original material. There are a few scratches and spots, but the majority of it is extremely clear, showing off the rich greys and blacks of Rudolph Maté’s photography to fine effect. The print has French intertitles and optional English subtitles. The film was shot in 4:3 and that, needless to say, is the ratio it is presented in. More to the point for a silent film, it also plays at the correct speed of twenty-four frames per second. For a glimpse of what the film could have looked like, see the restoration demonstration, which cuts from a murky video copy playing at too slow a speed, to the restored version.

You can watch the film silent if you wish. However, it makes more sense to play it with either the commentary or the music score, of which more in a moment. The commentary is by Casper Tybjerg, a Dreyer scholar from the University of Copenhagen. It’s genuinely informative and detailed, going into such areas as Dreyer’s directorial techniques and pointing out moments of interest, such as the brief appearance made by Michel Simon (star of Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning). In addition there are production design sketches from Hermann Warm and an audio interview with Falconetti’s daughter Hélène. This is in five sections, but unfortunately you can’t listen to them in sequence as you return to the menu at the end of each one. There are translations of certain French phrases, but given the just-adequate audio quality and Hélène Falconetti’s heavy accent, subtitles would have been useful.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film, and Dreyer did not authorise a score for it. Criterion have accompanied the film with Richard Einhorn’s Visions of Light, a choral and orchestral work performed by vocal group Anonymous 4, soloist Susan Narucki and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and Choir. Visions of Light was inspired by Joan’s story and Dreyer’s film, its words (a libretto booklet is included) drawing on Joan’s letters and the writings of medieval female mystics. As an accompaniment to the film it works very well, enhancing some already powerful moments (such as the torture-chamber sequence). It is recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1, but as it is mostly in a high register with a soprano soloist, it won’t test your speakers too much. There is also an essay by Einhorn on Joan and the origins of Visions of Light, plus a short video on the music including interviews with Einhorn and Anonymous 4. These are certainly interesting, but one can’t help wondering that the buyers of this DVD are more likely to be interested in the film than music which isn’t ultimately part of it. It’s admirably completist of Criterion to include these last two items, but they are less relevant and essential to the film than the other extras. There are twenty-four chapter stops, eight leading to particular sections of the film, twelve to the start of movements of Visions of Light, two to both.

Minor nitpicks aside, you have to praise Criterion yet again: a great film has been done proud on DVD.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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