Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Balazs, the Close Up, and Dreyer's "Passion"

Few canonical works of cinema draw more split reactions than Carl Th. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, perhaps the last great film to emerge from the silent period, released right at the tail end of the medium in 1928. While not an “entertaining” film in the conventional sense, there is a truly gripping dramatic element to the film that cannot be ignored. Dreyer fills his film with such a sense of historical atmosphere and “presence” that it’s almost eerie. The film’s universe seems to exist in a kind of suspended state, as if Dreyer were somehow magically able to transport his camera back in time. The starkness of his sets, the stylized yet restrained cinematography (by Rudolph Mate), and of course, the subtlety of his perfectly-chosen actors, achieves a level of verisimilitude without equal in the historical film. The original court transcripts of Joan’s trial, preserved in an archive in France, were used as source material for the script. In addition to the standout performance of Falconetti, Antonin Artaud brings an incredible level of humanity to his performance as the sympathetic clergyman.
The film is a virtual textbook example of Balazs’ idea of the emotional qualities conveyed through the close-up. The film is filled with faces, most notably the unforgettable image of Falconetti, her face conveying the unspeakable ordeal she is to endure. The images of the judges are equally powerful, their intolerance and impatience conveyed through the communicative gestures of the face, once again demonstrating the capacity of the close up as technique to provide the viewer with an opportunity to read all sorts of emotion and psychology into the image. The sense of "impatience" I refer to is one that Dreyer seems to emphasize in the close ups of the judges; rather than being outraged, they seem rather tired of Joan's claims, as if they just want to get the whole ordeal over with. It is easy to forget just how much of the film contains extreme close ups. Dreyer isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on these close proximities without providing an establishing or master shot to orient the viewer. Dreyer is less interested in spatial orientation than he is in emotional orientation, and the close up is the perfect means through which to convey this.
Through Joan, Dreyer presents a character so absolutely committed to her belief in her mission from God, her ideology and spiritual position is never questioned by the audience. Dreyer places Joan within the historical context to provide a framework from which the viewer can identify with this single-minded character. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very real sense of gripping drama in the proceedings thanks to the emotional investment that Dreyer provides. The film is never dull. After the trial sequence, Joan is led through an emotional torture chamber in which she is humiliated, degraded, and finally threatened with physical torture. She weakens momentarily, signing a confession that will allow her to escape execution, but realizes her mistake, recants her confession, and faces the burning at the stake.
This last sequence is the kind of scene that filmmakers would usually exploit for its spectacular qualities, despite the grim and even tragic nature of the event. Dreyer contrasts Joan’s preparation for the execution with the daily lives of the townspeople, including much merry-making and even a shot of a mother in the crowd casually nursing her infant, who seems unfazed by the goings-on. Joan’s execution is handled in an appropriately subtle manner, and is followed by a sequence in which the townspeople riot in protest to her death. Again, this sequence, which other filmmakers might take the opportunity to turn into a major spectacle, is kept brief and subdued by Dreyer.
The strangely mixed reaction to the film seems to draw viewers into two camps: those who find the film overwhelming dull and boring beyond all reason, and those who invest in the emotional power of Dreyer’s imagery. Few silent films really require an engagement with the image for full effect in the way this one does. It has been reported that Dreyer hoped to shoot the film in sound, which would have been extremely risky from a technical standpoint in 1928. There are arguments that the use of intertitles interrupts the visual rhythm of the film, as well as creating a momentary disconnect from the viewers’ connection with the emotional conveyance of the close ups. It could just as well be argued, I think, that the medium of the silent film is perfectly suited to this film, as it allows the images to speak for themselves. The images are the key to the film’s power, and offer a rich experience for viewers willing to engage with them.

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