Exploring the inexpressible, ineffable qualities of desire pressed tenuously and incompletely but immediately onto the surface of screens that cannot quite accommodate those desires but nonetheless must try to relate to them, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film remains one of cinema’s great meditations on human communication in all its valences: both achieved and failed, asked and given, demanded and foiled. For the same reasons, it remains one of the great films about the possibilities of the medium, exploring cinema at both its barest essentials and its furthest reaches. What, the film ponders, does it mean for its titular character, nominally the historical figure Joan of Arc, French hero of the Hundred Years’ War during the 15th century, to doubt and feel and desire, to commit against the flow of the world, to sense other flows unacknowledged by the powers that deny her? What does it mean for actress Renée Falconetti to essay a soul-rending performance of a woman she never knew outside of her work to recreate (and thus create) her? And what does it mean for us as viewers to confront the senses essayed in this film, largely unknown but somehow known to us, to wrestle with the very capacity of imagery to explore the possibilities and limits of representation, to represent connection across space and time? What, simply, does it mean to visualize Joan’s desire, which, the film makes clear, is unmaterial, is beyond visual comprehension? What does it mean to know a human from their face? What even is it to be interested in the material on screen?
Dreyer, directing a script he co-wrote with Joseph Delteil, channels these questions into a 90-minute passion play, a cinematic aria of longing and loneliness, desire and desperation. Perhaps more than any film before or since (and that’s an overstatement, but the film inspires such over-statement if only to remind us how doing so allows us to fail), Passion cleaves right to the heart of what it means to make and watch cinema. Deeply elemental, almost non-representational, we watch a woman subjected to a trial for crimes that are, in this film, largely spiritual and mental, not physical and material. More than the realities of France in the middle ages, the narrative theme of Dreyer’s film really is what it means to live in a world of roiling and unclarifiable tensions between inner and outer worlds, what it means to sense, however tenuously, that someone is living a life that you cannot grasp in full but may feel out and engage with nonetheless.
In the beginning, the film frames itself as a history book, as history, as trial, a meticulous recording, a detective’s search for a solution, an injunction to “discover Joan as she really was.” And yet it plays like a luminous sermon, less moving us through a story or transporting us “back” in time than creating and generating time and space in its poetic engagement. Rather than establishing and drawing us into the space, into the past, into something that feigns reality or tries to suggest access to that past, as most films do, Dreyer’s film evacuates the film of any markers of historical realism. Given very little indexical information about who Joan is narratively (where is she from? Who are her family? What has she experienced?) the film confronts us not from France in the 13th century but from the very bowels and summits of humanity. As we watch Falconetti subject herself to torture and mental anguish and reconfirm her belief in her spiritual world at risk of corporeal oblivion, the film ponders: is this Joan? Would it be “more” Joan if we had more “literal” information about her? Is this a “representation” of France? Of a human sensibility? Is it historical? What does it even mean to represent “truth”?
Famously, for most of the film, all we have to lean on are close-ups on human faces, particularly Falconetti’s. The close-ups are remarkably implicating: we’re inquisitors, and the capacity of cinema to visualize emotion, to empathize, is on trial. There are panning shots that position us as members of the audience, but more often than not we confront Falconetti and thus Joan abstractly, as a somewhat disembodied presence, or at least a body only tenuously linked to her material world even as she is crucially and cruelly defined by it. Backgrounds are rendered by cinematographer Rudolph Maté as largely abyssal voids, barren suggestions of spiritual uncertainty that drive the faces forward as if in bas-relief, abetted by the lack of stage make-up on the faces, rendering them in punishing, intimate detail. There’s often little sense of how characters occupy space in relation to one another, let alone in comparison to the external world. Frequently, there’s a vast amount of empty head-space above Falconetti’s head, suggesting not only a physical alienation but a spiritual gulf between her and her surroundings and an absent void of engagement that she fills with her own thoughts and ideas, an absence that signals genuine possibility and presence of the unforeseen.
Stylistically, then, the film really does ask us to confront Joan’s spirituality. It positions us among the inquisitors when she walks into the torture chamber, and it forces us so often to watch and observe her, to experience the strange unknowable intimacy of the film screen, and not know what to do with it. What makes her tick? Who is she? When she looks back at the inquisitors, she’s clearly looking at us, and few films register such a pronounced sense of animated uncertainty. Can we extend our capacity to care to her? What kind of information about her are we “supposed” to receive to care? The film isn’t primarily invested in representational space, but in what representational space gives us access to, and whether other forms of visualizing might offer alternative paradigms for our engagement as viewers with experiences that we can never truly “see”. Fittingly, it doesn’t primarily give us access, we get one panning shot at the beginning, but it doesn’t establish the room.
Instead, in Falconetti, we have a singularly astonishing portrait of doubt and self-questioning, a truly harrowing passage from a mixture of belief and anxiety (signaled early on in the white glow the set lighting casts Joan in, as though under an inquisition lamp) to extraordinary doubt (signaled when the film removes this lighting, turning Falconetti’s face into a crestfallen and chaotic assemblage of marks and lines) to renewed vigor and commitment (in the final section, the lighting casts Joan in a luminous glow of resolve, almost diffusing her into the screen and etherealizing her). In casting Joan in so many glows and hues, the film demonstrates a commitment to exploring how the visual and visible might expose the unknowable presence of the divine all around us, might ask us what it even means to see at all. Falconetti is frequently shot looking up out of the frame, as though to a spiritual plane, almost beyond the earthly confines around her, beyond the representational world, beyond the film itself. The film itself asks us what it means to study Joan without resonating on her frequency, what it means to develop empathy for a figure who is so radically human and yet so unutterably different from most of us. While Joan herself finally commits to a personal relationship with the divine, the film, one of the great artistic statements of all time, in any medium, ultimately considers how we might replicate this relationship to the unknowable in confronting each other.