I was almost speechless after this rare cinematic treat at the weekend. We had tickets to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død – on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London, with live musical accompaniment and the original Danish intertitles to add to the authentic evocation of the 1920s experience. Not everyone’s idea of a big Saturday night out in the year 2012, I realise, although the auditorium at NFT1 was encouragingly packed.
This was showing as part of the BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll Winners season, as it was voted number 9 in the magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll, as discussed here. Because it’s silent, and foreign, and black and white, it’s pushing against many prejudices to find a modern audience, but I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when silents – early Mack Sennett and Hal Roach comedies at any rate – were still shown on TV during the school holidays, so even though these curios were already 50 years old, I was exposed to them without prejudice.
That said, it’s unusual to be sat in a cinema watching one. I am coming relatively late to Dreyer (I’m never shy to admit my own latecomings – nothing worse than someone pretending to have seen something they haven’t), but was knocked out by Ordet, earlier this year, one of his later, sound films. My appreciation of his work has also been coloured by my growing love of modern Scandinavian cinema and TV, the ground laid by a longer-held love of Ingmar Bergman. Put it this way, I’m as used to hearing Danish speech these days as I am to hearing, say, French, or Spanish, or Italian, and that wasn’t always the case. Oddly, there is no Danish speech in Joan of Arc, as it’s a French film of a French story, featuring French actors, speaking in French. But with the intertitles in Danish, it retains the director’s origins. (The BFI notes state that this restoration is the closest yet to a replica of what the audience at the 1928 premiere in Copenhagen would have seen. Imagine!)
I wish I could credit the amazing pianist, but it wasn’t Neil Brand as listed in the BFI notes, as he was introduced as Steve something, and I can’t remember his surname. He also played flute while tickling the ivories at certain points, and made dramatic percussive noises on the piano strings too. Bravo! There is something uniquely thrilling about watching moving images soundtracked before your very ears. (I once saw Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the Cadogan Hall with a live orchestra and choir, and that was brought to life, in a completely different way.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is an hypnotic experience; you’re watching predominantly close-ups of actors’ faces for most of the 96 minutes, arranged as if in monochrome Expressionist paintings.
It goes without saying that the actors in these early silent movies will have been stage-trained. And the demands of emoting onstage, at a distance from the audience, mean that silent movies often feel melodramatic, with actors over-emoting, and over-gesturing. As such, they can be an acquired taste. In silent movies, damsels in distress will often hold a fist up to their mouth and bite their knuckles, to convey fear and anxiety. There’s a lot of staring off camera, too. But Jeanne d’Arc is incredibly controlled, and restrained, and subtle. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as the Maid of Orleans, is seen throughout, her amazing face filling the screen, usually at the same diagonal angle as the iconic image of Christ, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Actually 35 at the time, although playing a 19-year-old, she reminded me of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with her shorn hair and wide eyes.
The judges are grotesques; again, characterful old stage actors, one imagines, shot at Expressionistic angles, and, once again, filling the screen. (The famous playwright Antonin Artaud, he of the Theatre Of Cruelty, is also seen, as a monk.) The contrast between Falconetti’s smooth, wet skin and theirs – dry, wrinkled, fat, puffy – is stark. There is no doubt who’s the goodie, and who are the baddies in this film. The story concerns only her trial, and is based upon actual 15th century court documentation (which is shown at the beginning), and falls into three acts: the charges against her; the torture; and her execution at the stake. We all know the outcome, but – as with Mel Gibson’s heavy-handed, blood-soaked Passion Of The Christ – we are forced to endure the prologue to death right there with the accused. It’s powerful stuff.
Loaded with symbolism – much of it, to be fair, also sometimes heavy-handed – this is a sensory experience that pushes a lot of buttons. You’re swept along by the music: torrid, melancholy, sparing; by the imploring images: ugly, beautiful, exquisitely framed, the early tableaux giving way in the last act to crowd scenes and mayhem that you’re just not expecting; and by the sheer inevitability of the tragedy, postponed by administrative and legislative to-ing and fro-ing in the courtroom.
Sometimes, you watch a “classic” (or “an immortal screen classic”, as per the original poster), and you appreciate its historical importance, and are glad that you have seen it, but it’s a dry, academic, box-ticking exercise. With Dreyer, for me, it’s an experience to savour. There’s nothing antique about this film. It’s over 80 years old, and yet it moves and terrifies and manipulates with the same skill and artistic audacity as anything powered by digital technology or studio profligacy or – and here’s the point – endless dialogue.
More of this type of thing, please.
Mind you, can’t wait to see Looper.