Why ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is the Most Highly Regarded Horror Film

Passion of Joan of Arc

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they gush over the brilliant courtroom drama from Carl Theodor Dreyer that pitted Joan of Arc and her passion against judges hell bent on sending her to the next life. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a stunning piece of work, and there’s good reason to think of it not only as a horror film, but the most well-respected horror film ever made.

Cole: So I’ve discovered exactly why I didn’t enjoy Man with a Movie Camera at all: it doesn’t build to anything. It’s like finding a collection of rocks and admiring them, but never seeing them turned into a castle. The unrealized potential is too radioactive, which is why something like The Passion of Joan of Arc is such a triumph. Maybe it’s not as experimental, but it actually leads to something larger than it’s individual parts. And shouldn’t all films strive for that?

Landon: Yes. The Passion of Joan of Arc is pretty great…for a rock pile. Carefully assembled through some of the most masterful close-ups of rocks I’ve ever seen.

Cole: Beautiful rocks! Minerals even! So maybe I should have gone with a different metaphor…it’s a lot like seeing something that’s built from gorgeous individual pieces become something even more awe-inspiring.

Landon: True. And I don’t necessarily think it’s less experimental than Man with the Movie Camera, it just has more narrative build-up. But the combination of close-ups and the rapid cutting techniques were not necessarily the norm of its time. There’s just something masterful about how this film was put together that makes it age magnificently well.

Cole: Those quick cuts are the most surprising. They’re the reason I have hope that modern movie fans can watch this near-century-old film and still dig into it. Even the ADD-addled crowds who got antsy during Crank.

Landon: I think we should go back and reevaluate how all the films on this list led to the work of Neveldine/Taylor.

Cole: Undoubtedly.

Landon: But yes, the cutting was what I first found to be so affecting and effective about this movie, in tandem with the non-selective but always profound use of the close-up. I think I’m more convinced by this movie than by Vertov’s film that cinema lost some unique capability to express things in purely visual terms when sync sound came along.

Cole: Exactly. This movie does more to prove that film can be expressive without sound than Vertov. I say this as a too-dedicated fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work.

Landon: Hey, hallways are pretty great.

Cole: And it feels perfectly fine to love the ten-words-a-second feel of The West Wing and to cheat on it with something that’s script might have been comprised almost solely of “Focus on Maria Falconetti‘s eyes, make her cry, repeat.”

Because, holy hell, she had magnets in those things.

Landon: Yes. I think it’s been a few weeks since I’ve show ebullient, unrestrained love for a movie on this list, but I love, love, love this movie. Particularly because of that performance, which is so effective particularly because of its silence. Falconetti expresses a range of emotions that can hardly be summed up in words.

I mean, she’s no Milla Jovovich, but still…

Cole: But still. So does that mean you lament her departure from film acting after this role (and after only appearing in two movies)?

Landon: Well, this movie was allegedly responsible for her leaving acting because of what it required from her, and that makes sense. This might be the first on-screen, fully method performance. Because so much of silent film acting involved carefully orchestarted gestures and expressions, I’m not sure if I’d be interested in seeing that actress in anything else but this singular, incredible performance, especially since she left acting on her own volition.

Cole: An excellent point, although it would be great to time travel back to see her on the stage (after we kill Hitler, of course). She’s powerful, but you’re right. There’s a certain perfection in her owning this role so thoroughly, not bringing any baggage to it, and not creating any baggage beyond it either.

And maybe it’s just the month, but after re-watching Joan of Arc, it struck me as a fiercely compelling, terrifying horror film.

Landon: Interesting. How so?

Cole: We are watching the drawn-out murder of a young woman. That conclusion (assuming you weren’t asleep in history class) is a crushing, terrifying inevitability that casts a pall over ever moment. The method of execution is also as gruesome as anything Saw might have dreamed up (alebit a lot simpler). It’s what people refer to when “going Medieval” after all.

Landon: And there’s that scene where Bloody Mary shows up behind her during a Skype session…

Cole: That scene may have been cut from the version restored in 1985…

Landon: Like we’ve been saying, it’s ahead of its time…You’re right. Beyond historical drama, it might not be appropriate to classify this as anything but horror, especially from the director of Vampyr. This is one of the most claustrophobic movies out there. Even before the violence, you feel the inescapable, doomed oppression of her judges.

Cole: Exactly. There’s a great sequence that’s devoid of almost any title cards that flies back and forth between the concerned face of Joan filling with more dread and the hardened faces of her accusers. It puts us into her frantic mindset exquisitely – which effectively asks us to experience what it would be like to be crushed by the unyielding monster of a corrupt legal system ready to light the first kindling underneath us.

Landon: Perhaps there’s nothing more horrifying than being surrounded by people who think you’re insane no matter what you say or do.

Cole: Screaming “I’m not crazy!” usually has the opposite effect.

Landon: What do you think about the film as chamber drama, as relegated exclusively to her trial, which is quite different than other cinematic portrayals of this figure? In other words, are you able to imagine Falconetti’s Joan outside/before the circumstances of the film?

Cole: Vividly. Although there’s no way for me to know how much of that is influenced by knowing the historical figure ahead of time. We should show this to someone born in 1994. I hear schools are terrible now.

But what you’re referring to is an interesting power the film has – an ability to use words to transport. It’s literary – which might have really pissed off Vertov…

Landon: it’s literary in terms of transporting us into a story at a different time and place and well beyond the representation we see, but it’s not literary in its need for words to do so. At this moment I can’t remember a single thing any of the judges says to Joan. I just recall them staring at her and generally questioning her while she provides a weighty emotional reaction.

Vertov’s film was a cognitive experiment. The Passion of Joan of Arc is ultimately an emotional journey if there ever was one.

Cole: But it never seems melodramatic. Maybe because we already know the stakes of the story…which will be lit on fire with Joan attached at the end. Without that, it might seems absurd to see a woman burst into tears when asked how old she is.

Landon: Do you have a sound of Falconetti’s voice in your head?

Cole: I’ve never thought about that, but no. Not one distinct from my own. Do you?

Landon: For some reason (or because I’m full-on crazy) I do. It’s a little deep, but very quiet, as if Meryl Streep or Nico were speaking 15th century French, but without the (very different) baggage of either of those people. Silent film is a bit literary in that sense as well. We’re allowed to fill in the gaps in our own mind and that closer acquaints us to the experience.

Cole: We’re forced to fill in the gaps. And that might be an advantage for those inclined to give silent films a chance. Just as we’ve been told subtitles help out actors because we create a perfect line delivery in our minds, silent films (like you mentioned last week) are malleable. We transform them by watching.

And in lieu of ending with a joke this week, maybe you should just make a plea for people to give Joan of Arc a chance:

Landon: Because her judges didn’t?

Cole: Ha. Exactly.

Landon: Perhaps the best thing about The Passion of Joan of Arc is that it will defy expectations for anyone who thinks they have a good impression of what silent film is and can do. Or frankly, film in general. Even all this time later, there’s still nothing like it.

Cole: Well said.

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