La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc recounts the historic trial of Joan of Arc, a patron saint of France. This historical drama is based on actual records from the trial. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s direction and set design, Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s acting, and Rudolph Maté’s arti direction all contributed to an unconventional and timeless piece of film art.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is most remembered for Maria Falconetti’s performance and for Dreyer’s camera work. These are not just the two most memorable aspects of the film, but the core of the film itself. Falconetti portrays Jeannne d’Arc as an embodiment of suffering. She is a tortured soul that is trapped, trying to navigate the theological kangaroo court. The intense emotion portrayed throughout the film is further emphasized by Dreyer’s dynamic camera angles and hyper close up shots.
Dreyer was able to weave Jeanne’s state of mind into the casting, filming, and editing. Her accusers are made up of individuals that have facial features that are rough, wrinkled, pronounced, or otherwise contrast to Jeanne’s innocent and youthful facial features. Dryer was able to accent the features of the accusers with dramatic shadows and unusual camera angles.
The camera is hyper focused on the characters, specifically their faces and points of interest. Dreyer left little room for the viewer to see anything except for emote from characters and props pushing forward the narrative. The shots were rarely wide enough to show more than a single individual and the sets were mostly void of any props or set design.
The emotion displayed by each actor is almost over the top. Each frame of each characters performance is met with an exaggerated display of the characters emotional state of mind. This is likely due to a multitude of factors. Dreyer worked with great actors that were able to accomplish this level of masking. The silent era forced filmmakers to lean on pantomime and exaggerated expressions, since inter title dialogue could not imbue passion into a scene the way that future talking films would allow. Dreyer was also framing each shot from the point of view of Jeanne.
The way we as the viewer see each character is the same as how Jeanne is seeing and interpreting them. The characters are not hiding their emotions at all, but exuding them. There is no question as the desire of each character’s intent to condemn her and break her. Dreyer removed as many distractions as he could and focused in as deeply as possible on capturing the emotion behind each character and their influence on Jeanne’s psyche.
The editing throughout the film is crafted to reinforce Jeanne’s state of mind. Not only are the shots up close and focused on capturing the explicit emotion of each character, but edited together in a disorienting manner. The disorientation further bolsters the confusion and hopeless position of Jeanne.
There is a scene were Joan is found to be sick and the interrogators want make sure she is kept alive, so that they can torture her to death… I was shocked by how real the scene looked and immediately looked it up. Apparently an understudy or assistant on the set was used as a stand in, or stunt double, for Falconetti and actually cut with a knife.
I could not find a source from Dreyer on the matter, or anything outside of other blogs. However, the way this blood comes out appears to be too real to fake. The shot is also really long. I wonder how much blood that unfortunate person lost. It also looks like the person has a scar or some other discoloration on their arm. Hopefully there was only one take.
Odd Wall Art
As I mentioned before, Dreyer focused so heavily on close up shots that it was hard to identify anything unique in the set. As if the set and surroundings were thrown together to get them passable, but not to add further depth. This is not always the case as there are some sequences with decor that clearly amplifies the atmosphere, like the torture devices. There is, however, one strange oddity that caught my eye. An odd man-bird drawing is depicted on the wall while Nicolas Loyseleur, the priest that is deceiving Jeanne, is walking up the stairs.
These sets are all manufactured for the film, so this is not an oversight. Something like this does not just happen by mistake or without reason. This is all a guess, but perhaps someone out there knows the answer. To me, it appears to be a human face on the body of a chicken. After looking around, it appears that the rooster is an important symbol in Christianity. Synonymous with the story of Peter and how he denied Jesus three times and felt remorseful at the crow of the rooster the next morning. Perhaps it is shown to help reinforce and parallel Jeanne’s communion, something that prisoners of the time were not given. Thus, shedding light if her accusers truly believed their accusations or if they were just using her as a political pawn.
It could also be referring to Nicolas Loyseleur, the subject positioned directly below the drawing. He may now be struggling with the guilt of condemning someone of tremendous faith. He also pushed Jeanne to renounce god, by attempting to trick her into believing she was worshiping the devil. This could in turn be his moment of recognition that he has in turn been “denying” god and only realizing at the crow of the rooster.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is based on the meticulously documented trial of Joan of Arc from 1430-1431. The transcripts recount the trial beginning with the first day of proceedings, January 9th 1431, until the last day of trial, May 30th 1431. Her execution took place May 28th 1431, two days before the end of the transcript. It is incredible that a document comprised of the trial of a commoner in 1431 could survive to this day. Her story has become legendary to the point of Joan being declared the patron saint of France nearly 500 years later, in 1922.
It seems so baffling that a trial of a commoner in the 1400’s could have the transcripts survive for 600 years and have such an incredible impact on the history of France. Not just an impact at the time, but still to this day. It is not surprising to me that her trial would be well documented. Meticulous court transcripts were not novel in the 1400s and had been a common practice for hundreds of years. What is fascinating is the fact that a commoner would illicit that level of documentation and that the documents could survive for so long.
Her impact on the hundred years’ war, specifically in the siege of Orléans and in King Charles VII’s ascension to the throne in the Lancastrian War, made her a contemporary hero. Joan became a folk hero after the siege of Orléans and that legend continued to grow and be embedded in the cities history. Her inspiration to the French nation was magnified by the trial and execution, as well as the subsequent rehabilitation trial that nullified her guilty verdict.
Biases behind the Trial
It is clear that Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc paints the pro-English Church court as a kangaroo court, out to ensure a guilty verdict. That perspective is consistent with how her trial is remembered. There are clear biases inherent with a military foe conducting your trial, coupled with one side representing themselves vs the other side having a legal team. For me, the story has always been about how a commoner rose in the military ranks and needed to be “taken care of” and was thus found guilty at a sham trial and burned at the stake.
It comes as no surprise then to learn that the “heretic” case is focused on her clothing, hairstyle, visions, and delusions of grandeur. There is no doubt that the focus of the investigation was about her clothing and how she was interpreting her dreams, since there is a written record of the interviews and questioning. On top of unusual questioning surrounding her clothes, Joan is forced to do theological gymnastics in order to navigate the questions surrounding religion. This all boils down to a soft case to imprison someone for any reason beyond political and military reasons.
With that said, I found an interesting review of Daniel Hobbins’ book, The Trial of Joan of Arc. The Journal of Military History, vol. 72, by Laurence W. Marvin. According to Hobbins, the church was fully aware of the scrutiny it would be under and took extra precautions while conducting its inquisitorial process. They supposedly took great care in ensuring that the trial would be perceived as a fair trial in an effort to avoid backlash.
As Hobbins notes, Joan’s international fame put tremendous pressure on her prosecutors to carefully observe procedure and give her every benefit of the doubt, since the entire Christian world would be watching. In their quest for fairness, the prosecutors produced the most detailed trial records of anyone in the medieval period (p. 1). Because of her notoriety, then, Hobbins believes Joan received the fairest judicial examination possible in a church court observing inquisitorial procedure. The Bishop of Beauvais, who had jurisdiction, ensured that everything [End Page 557] was properly witnessed, that Joan’s responses were carefully recorded, and that experts reviewed the evidence and verdict. After her second trial the court even submitted its findings to the theological faculty at the University of Paris to ensure that its verdict accorded with canon law (pp. 182-183).
Joan of Arc actually underwent three legal proceedings of record. The first consisted of a fact finding deposition and the second the formal trial. One of the crimes for which Joan was indicted was wearing male apparel, and the record constantly refers to the court’s disapproval of this practice. Beyond this the prosecutors accused Joan of a multitude of crimes, including hearing voices. Of seventy articles or specifications drawn up in the second proceeding, several concerned Joan the soldier. Article 8 claimed she had learned riding and the use of weapons; article 12 accused her of receiving and wearing clothing suitable for a man-at-arms; article 22 charged her with acting as a captain of war; and article 53 said she acted against god by serving as commander in chief for an army as large as 16,000 men, including nobles and princes.
The verdict in the trial was not the forgone conclusion of a kangaroo court and the court did not sentence Joan to death. Neither was she tortured, at least officially, although that was a common option under canon law. When some inquisitors suggested torture, they were soundly rebuffed. In the end Joan abjured her conduct and behavior, including wearing men’s clothing. Ecclesiastical courts had a reputation for leniency, and, given the detailed charges for which she had been found guilty, the court offered her a semblance of clemency. Joan received perpetual imprisonment with the option of eventual release but soon she recanted her confession and resumed wearing men’s clothing. It seems on this point the court could have prevented this sin simply by having the offensive clothing removed from her cell. After her relapse the court quickly condemned her in a third proceeding, and released her to the secular authorities, who executed her.Marvin, Laurence W. Review of The Trial of Joan of Arc. The Journal of Military History, vol. 72
King Charles ordered that the case be examined again in 1450 in order to clear Joan’s name. This act could be for the sake of duty to honor Joan or it could be to remove the heresy label from someone synonymous with his rise to victory. At this point my guess is as good as any and I have already dove way farther into Joan of Arc’s story then I imagined going into this.
Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Written by: Joseph Delteil & Carl Theodor Dreyer
Editing By: Marguerite Beaugé & Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Maurice Schutz, Eugène Silvain, Antonin Artaud, & Michel Simon
Runtime: 1h 21m
Genre: Biography, Historical, Drama
Distributed by: Société Générale des Films
Link to Video Below:
Marvin, Laurence W. Review of The Trial of Joan of Arc. The Journal of Military History, vol. 72 no. 2, 2008, p. 557-558. Project MUSE