The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer

Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Photo by A7A08C81_243.jpg - © Archives du 7e Art/Société générale des films - Image courtesy (IMDB)

Suffering the Inscrutable: The Ethics of the Face in Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’

The Passion of Joan of Arc is imbued with a painterly quality wherein the not-quite static framing of the human visage is its main concern, its aesthetic gambit, and the source of its affective impact.

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Criterion Collection
3 Mar 2018

Rarely has a film been simultaneously as celebrated and beleaguered as Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Danish filmmaker was invited by the Société Générale des Films to create and shoot a film in France based on a female historical figure; his choices were Marie Antoinette, Catherine de Medici, or Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was national news again, having just been canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920 and subsequently installed as a patron saint of France. The transcripts of Joan’s trial were finally published in 1921 and Dreyer used them as the primary resource for his script. Indeed, the film opens by alluding to those transcripts in a bid for historical fidelity that is reinforced by the costumes and cinematography.

Dreyer had his design architects construct one of the most expensive sets ever built for a film in the early decades of cinema. The set was meant to be a functional but slightly warped rendition of Rouen Castle. It was all of one piece, constructed of concrete, complete with a working drawbridge, a set of small houses, a cathedral, and the courtyard where the execution would take place. The expressionist touches and the full scope of the building never appear in any clear manner in the film, a fact that outraged the Société, who were footing the ₣7million budget. Instead ,the film is constructed mostly from close-ups. Occasionally the camera steps back to take in the larger scene; the sweeping pan that opens the first scene and prepares us for the trial provides a notable example.

It’s a clever shot—particularly in a film that employs the pan so frugally. It seems as though it were tracking the progress of a soldier as he moves across the room to set a stool down for Joan to sit upon during her interrogation. There’s a nice bit of business on the part of the soldier as he looks out toward the assembled theologians (in the foreground, mostly with their backs to us or in profile, so that when the soldier looks toward them he is also looking toward us). He seems to seek approval as he searches out the proper place for the stool, wiping it off with his sleeve.

But in another sense, the shot is not really “about” the soldier at all. Various clergymen obscure our view of the soldier; we bear witness to the desultory movements of an assembly eager to begin a trial but clearly unsure of what to expect. The viewer’s eye dodges from character to character, unable to settle on any given object of consideration. In this brief sequence, the audience is met with a void. All this activity with (as yet) no object. We now come to reconsider that panning shot; it’s not tracking the soldier, it’s seeking its proper object of consideration. This invitation to indecision, however, will be short-lived. Shortly after Joan appears, mere seconds into the scene, the film will be dominated by close-ups, many of them of her face.

Few films in the history of cinema are so obsessively focused on the face as Dreyer’s masterpiece. Indeed, the film is imbued with a painterly quality wherein the not-quite static framing of the human visage is its main concern, its aesthetic gambit, and the source of its affective impact. Of course, Dreyer found his ideal muse in Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who plays Joan with a noble suffering, an exalted victimhood that is difficult to articulate adequately. Falconetti only appeared in two films over the course of her celebrated career (her earlier film appearance was in La Comtesse de Somerive in 1917, directed by Georges Denola and Jean Kemm). During her life, she was renowned for her stage work—mostly in light comedies. When Dreyer first met her, he was unimpressed. He soon became convinced, however, that if she stripped away the makeup and the theatrical poses, then together they could expose “the soul behind that façade” [cited in Tom Milne, The Cinema of Carl Dreyer (NY: Barnes, 1971), 95]. She is best remembered now for her incandescent and truly immolating performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Her performance was considered so heartrendingly effective that a long-standing legend holds that her suffering was real, that the demanding (perhaps sadistic) director pushed her to the edge of her rather frail mental state (Falconetti suffered from mental health issues throughout her life) in an attempt to convey Joan’s plight. Stories of Dreyer becoming so impassioned in his direction that his face turned bright red as he sputtered and barked orders at Falconetti pervade the literature. Yet other accounts reveal that there was far more collaboration between Falconetti and her director than subjugation of the former by the latter. Falconetti was the only cast member allowed to watch the rushes alongside Dreyer and purportedly they chose the finest segments together and Falconetti shaped her subsequent performances based on those decisions and discussions. Some witnesses claim that by the end of filming she was able to successfully satisfy the director based on her interpretation of his instructions alone, without the need for rehearsal [see Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 133].

Perhaps the legends of abuse arose from a desperate need on the part of viewers to explain (or explain away) the overwhelmingly palpable sense of despair that Falconetti brings to the screen. Roger Ebert, for example, described the rumor that Dreyer forced Falconetti to kneel for extended periods of time on the bruising stone floor while insisting that she remove all traces of overt pain from her face—so that her discomfiture registered as some more profound affliction, unspoken and perhaps unspeakable. Pain that intense, many viewers seem to contend, has to be real.

Falconetti’s performance is indeed remarkable for the manner in which she incorporates (that is, brings into her body) the suffering of the film’s title. The term “passion” derives from the Latin passio, meaning “to suffer”, and applies particularly to the suffering of Christ and martyrs. In other words, “passion” refers to a specific kind of suffering, a rather troubling kind—a suffering that on the one hand is devoted to divine love and on the other hand is the result of the inscrutability of divinity itself. Joan in this film suffers on behalf of God because the authorities of the Church deny her claims of congress with the divine.

Maria Falconetti© 1928 – Gaumont (IMDB)

Dreyer’s casting choices and framing technique (again, mostly focused on faces, here—those of Joan’s persecutors) encourage the viewer to ascribe malevolence to the authorities interrogating Joan. These faces are largely ugly, twisted into misshapen expressions of outrage and hauteur. The theologians repeatedly attempt to ensnare her within the finer points of church doctrine. They goad her into declaring that she is now in a state of grace (such a seemingly hubristic declaration being deemed a mortal sin). She continually evades their grasp. But the theologians are themselves caught in the thorny contradictions of their calling.

Theology is a deeply paradoxical field of study in its attempt to employ reason and logic in coming to grips with what is by definition beyond reason and logic. This description applies equally to the two philosophical fields with which theology shares the most characteristics: metaphysics and ethics; indeed, we might tentatively define theology as a metaphysical system of ethics founded upon a conception of the divine. From the theologians’ point of view, Joan slips the traces of agreed-upon dogma and must be denounced and punished; the integrity of the Church and its authority rests upon its ability to discern divine inspiration from insanity and opportunist chicanery. In this sense, then, we might perceive Joan’s adamant refusal to succumb to their blandishments and threats as her fortitudinous defense of the divine in the face of human hypocrisy.

From another point of view, however, the theologians are not necessarily hypocrites (although they indeed resort to duplicitous means to extract a confession from her); they simply occupy an untenable position. If God is by definition supra-rational (beyond the reach of reason) and yet remains inscrutable, eternally hidden from view, then the only true engagement with God is through revelation and since that seems to happen most typically to individuals out of sight of witnesses, there is no adequate measure of a faith experience. In this sense, Joan is suffering not simply on behalf of God but also owing to God’s inscrutability, the divine stance beyond the realm of understanding. There is no adequation (no point of similarity from which understanding can occur) between the human and the divine. This is why the encounter with the divine is sometimes characterized as a shattering experience beyond even the sublime. The sublime is, by definition, an experience of something that cannot be adequately cognized (infinity or the awesome power of a hurricane) and yet can be withstood, can be survived. But the true encounter with the divine cannot be withstood. The Bible is full of accounts in which those who experience the divine presence are shattered in some irrevocable manner (e.g., Moses as the ostracized leader of his people or even Abraham in his willingness to murder his son). God’s favorites are also victims of an encounter they cannot possibly withstand.

The Passion of Joan of Arc can profitably be understood as a meditation on the ethical extreme of the encounter with the Other. God may be the ultimate Other—in that, by definition, the divine is the inversion of all that his human. We are mortal, God is immortal. We are limited in our power, God is unlimited. This is the “way of remotion,” defining God by negating all that constitutes the human. But in another sense, the encounter with God is simply the extreme example of the basis for all encounters; that is, the engagement with the Other. Any authentic encounter is the engagement of the Self with the radically Other—and foundationally, this applies to any Other. Most of our experiences aren’t really experiences at all—they are pre-conceived. That is, they rely upon the pre-packaged concepts we carry around with us to make sense of the world. I enter a room and see my desk and my chair and my books where I left them. Actually, I notice them but I don’t really see them in the strong sense at all. They fit my expectations and I don’t stop to actually encounter them. Doing so all the time would be time-consuming and tiring; the problem is we rarely stop to encounter.

The same applies to our interactions with other people. I see a stranger walking toward me and I immediately (and not always consciously) begin to categorize—a man, well-dressed, walking a dog, on his Bluetooth, talking louder than necessary, etc. I make all sorts of assumptions based not on an experience in the profound sense but rather on the concepts and categories at my disposal. I didn’t see that man at all, I saw his type and him as a mere embodiment of that type. I risked nothing, I changed not in the least based on my observations from the safe distance of my conceptual apparatus. The actual encounter involves risk; I leave open the possibility in my engagement with the Other that I will change. More to the point, the true encounter demands that I change in some way to accommodate the Other. The Other makes a claim upon me that (if I am true to the experience) I can’t deny and can’t evade. I can’t simply set aside the categories I use to explain the world (or perhaps explain it away) but meeting the Other requires that I challenge those categories and put them at risk as I put my own sense of identity at risk. Engaging the Other as a person is, in this sense, not different in kind from the divine encounter. Both involve the shattering of the Self in the face of the unknown and not fully knowable.

A true encounter wants to move beyond category and this is why it so often involves the face-to-face meeting. What Dreyer’s focus on the face during Falconetti’s performance achieves is the incorporation of that divine encounter; the closeups embody the encounter within the contours of the human visage. As Emmanuel Levinas has demonstrated in numerous writings, the face refuses to succumb to the blandishments of our conceptual apparatus, our attempts to explain (away) the world we resist fully encountering: “The face resists possession, resists my powers… [it] speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation” [Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969), 197; 198].

Photo by A7A09012_295.JPG – © Archives du 7e Art/Société générale des films – Image courtesy (IMDB)


Levinas’s insight seems to build upon the I-Thou relation posited by Martin Buber. For Buber, we typically engage with the world through sense perception in an I-It relationship. That is, we see the items in the world (including other people) as entities separate from ourselves (from the I) that can either be used or experienced. The I-Thou relation, according to Buber, transcends this notion of experience (in that we cannot reduce that relation and its inherent reciprocity to mere experience, to a set of data and emotional investments that we take away from the encounter). The I-It relationship involves objectification and subsumption of Otherness under the comprehensive force of the I; it always serves as a means to an end (I engage with the computer in order to write this essay; I ask the stranger for directions to the museum). The I-Thou relation erodes the sense of distinction between the Self and Other; it serves as an end in itself.

Levinas, however, raises the stakes of the I-Thou relation by denying the claim of reciprocity. The Other’s face does not beckon the Self into a relation of mutuality that seeks to erase the in-betweenness of the I-Itrelationship. Instead, Levinas’s concept of the face is inherently asymmetrical. The face of the Other makes demands and it decenters the Self. There is no mutuality involved here. The Self is always beholden to the Other in its ethical urgency. And yet, like in Buber, the engagement with the Other opens onto infinity. Because I cannot reduce the Other to a concept or some other finite structure, that Otherness draws me into a relation wherein I cannot subjugate the Other, conceptually or otherwise.

For Levinas, this puts the face in a peculiar situation. The face is far more than simply the image it presents. The face indicates the presence of the Other; that is, the irrefutable character of being with the Self at this moment (not being for the Self, useable by the Self). That co-presencing (the being-with) is an exposure of the Other, on the one hand, in that the naked openness of the face invites violence in its vulnerability and yet demands ethical forbearance in its insistence (its unspoken plea) that we act kindly toward it. The face is the source of obligation (Totality and Infinity, 201). On the other hand, the Self is also exposed—exposed for what it is and what it ought to be: the “Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me” (Totality and Infinity, 207). The face of the Other lays bare the Self’s inherent penchant for violence (grappling with the world by grasping it with concepts, subjugating the world to my knowledge and employment of it). The face, for Levinas, is always more than the face; it is the marker of divine presence within the human visage, the sign of the being-with that is the source of meaning and, more importantly, the source of our obligation toward the Other. In essence, this is Original Sin, the obligation that precedes our very birth. We are always already indebted to the Other; hence, for Levinas, ethics is first philosophy. Ethics precedes ontology.

Dreyer seems to have anticipated Levinas’s reading of the face (which, of course, has roots that stretch back to Ancient Greece and the notion that character is “stamped” upon the face and can be read through its contours—the Greek word character means “stamping tool”). As we see close-up after close-up of Joan’s face, it becomes palpably more than a face. There is something discomfiting in the presence of that face, in its propensity for being-with us despite the distance of time and ontology (our realness, its status as mere image). Faces pervade the film but the theologians are generally shown at half length (meaning we usually see their upper bodies in their closeups); Joan is typically framed so we only see her face and perhaps her neck and upper shoulder. Her liquid eyes well up with tears that continually find release and flow down her cheeks; she directs her fervent stares away from her interlocutors into the abyss of the unknown, the divine presence available only to her. This face flits between dejection and transcendent illumination. Her face fills the screen; larger than life, she imposes herself upon us, demanding our attention and our sympathy.

Some commentators have dismissed this implicit demand for sympathy as the reduction of Joan to the status of victim. For instance, in an interview included as an extra on the recent Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Richard Einhorn, the composer of a cantata titled Voices of Light written for Joan (and used as one of the three available soundtracks for the Criterion edition), declares that his vision of Joan is founded upon her bravery, her defiance of oppression, her role as warrior. He refuses to endorse her victimization in the Dreyer film. I fear this is a gross misunderstanding of what Dreyer’s film accomplishes.

Joan’s suffering is the sign of her victory, of the unassailable ethical demand of her Otherness and her absorption within the divine presence (the proper atmosphere of all Otherness). Her suffering marks her non-compliance with the world as it is, her insistence that it be otherwise. As the film progresses, she wins over her most ardent critics. The theologians are deeply moved and many are reduced to tears when she recants her forced confession, thus assigning herself to execution. They cannot forgo her execution; the strictures under which they operate won’t allow for condoning what they must perceive as heresy. And yet they are genuinely bereaved. The meditative quality of the film draws the viewer into the realization that the face is more than a face—it is a demand, it is an insistence that we must change. In a film where very little happens, our understanding of the Other is radically transformed. This is not the suffering of a victim; it is suffering as a mode of conquering the selfish assurance of the Self. What she failed to ultimately do on the battlefield, Joan accomplishes in her persecution and demise. In revealing her Otherness to the Self, she opens experience onto the divine presence that is always at the heart of any encounter with the Other—not in the sense that there must be a God but rather in the sense that the encounter with Otherness always involves the infinite, boundless source of meaning and repletion that we define as divinity. The encounter with the Other shatters our complacency, it activates the dynamic unfolding of living force that informs the ethical basis of our existence. Her suffering becomes a less oppositional and more persuasive mode of defiance than her bellicosity ever could have been.

Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray edition of Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. They offer the film at two different rates of speed—24 frames per second or 20—providing rather different experiences. There are also three different scores available to accompany the film: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory in collaboration with Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and a score by pianist and composer Mia Yanashita. Extras include interviews with several of these composers, a commentary by film scholar Casper Tybjerg and an intriguing discussion by Tybjerg concerning the differing rates of speed (Tybjerg prefers the slower rate, as do I). Also included is a 1995 interview with Falconetti’s daughter and biographer, Hélène Falconetti. The contributions by Tybjerg are well worth investigating but the other extras are rather disappointing, to be frank. I don’t find either the Einhorn or the Gregory/Utley score to be engaging enough to warrant further discussion.