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Thursday, June 20, 2013

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: Joan, the Woman

Ingrid Bergman in "Joan of Lorraine" (1946).

If you research any serious to moderately serious actress in the history of the world, you’ll probably uncover her fascination with, desire to play, or personal portrayal of one character above all others: Joan of Arc. The list of actresses who have had the honor of bringing this martyred figure back to life are numerous: Katharine Cornell, Joan Plowright, and Jean Seberg, etc. Jean Arthur played her with an interesting twist, having her Joan listen and respond to God as naturally as if he were standing beside her, whereas most performers had received him in awe with upward glances. Julie Harris performed opposite Boris Karloff (as Bishop Pierre Cauchon) to great acclaim in The Lark. As for Ingrid Bergman, her fascination with the "Maid of Orleans" began in her youth. Identifying with this chosen woman’s otherworldliness and admiring her courage, Ingrid would become determined to portray her both on the screen and on the stage. Her first portrayal was in 1946's "Joan of Lorraine," a play within a play about one actress's voyage of discovery in the role of Joan. This was later adapted for film without the dual story element. She resumed, or rather, refashioned the role on stage in "Joan of Arc at the Stake" in 1953, directed by her then husband, Roberto Rossellini. Marion Cotillard just did a recorded rendering of this oration as well.

But why all the hoop-la? As history becomes mythology after so many centuries have passed, the Passion for Joan of Arc seems a bit strange and outdated. Certainly, modern cynicism prevents audiences from responding to the "voice of God" that plagues poor Joan with the same fascination. The instinct is to mock or raise an eyebrow rather than believe. In addition, perhaps because Joan is a woman-- a girl, really-- her triumph over the British in war-torn Europe is too often presented as more of a macabre fairy tale than a truly inspiring story of heroism. Of course, this has a lot to do with the way she has been portrayed to audiences over the years. It often reads more "cute" than moving that she went out of her way to bring peace to her nation.

Dame Judi Dench in "St. Joan" (1966).

Still, while the varying depictions may age, the story does not. War is war is war, and as is clear from our nightly news broadcasts, we as human beings haven’t evolved much in terms of co-existentialism. People living in fear, people massacred for freedom, the downtrodden, the revolutionists-- they’re all still here. Within the chaos, it is always the pure voice of reason and peace that seems to be sacrificed, not so much for fear of the words, but for fear of the change they may provoke. We are too married to our savage ways; too mistrustful of our brethren to surrender our modest level of power and control for fear that we will be forced to surrender all. Better to trample underfoot than be trampled underfoot. Thus, the “heavenly” voices are silenced and their living vessels become murdered legends, from Jesus to Joan to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, Joan's position as a revolutionary makes her story tempting to continuing generations of artists.

Then, there is the woman herself who is appealing. The industry of entertainment is rarely kind to women. In film, the role options are variations of but a few accepted types:  the loyal wife, the slut, the frazzled, backward girl who just wants a boyfriend, or the cold, modern female who is finally reminded that she is just a frazzled, backward girl who needs a boyfriend. Even Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction could be plopped into the ‘frazz’ category. So, imagine the appeal of a strong, independent, willful female character, who is not adherent to any man, but serves only the spirit of man-- an idea of peace and goodness that has no form nor shape but exists only as faith. Imagine the appeal for actresses wanting to give a performance of strength, madness, bravery, fear, betrayal, and all the shades between. This protagonist is much more appealing than the typical gal-Friday. Hallelujah!

What follows will be the analysis of three particular women and what they brought to the role of Joan. The films of Joan the Woman, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Joan of Arc present generally the same story, but in each adaptation, the audience meets three very different women. Which martyrdom was worth it?

Joan the Woman - Geraldine Farrar

Cecil B. DeMille seems the perfect director in retrospect to interpret the angelic Saint Joan. His own personal devotion to Christianity and his knack for luxurious, historical... re-imaginings shall we say (?), would certainly convince an encroaching viewer that something grandiose awaits on the other side of the "Play" button. Yet, Joan the Woman is far from a "Come to Jesus" cinematic moment. Cecil definitely takes certain liberties, for instance creating a love story within the tragic tale by uniting the stories of the The Hundred Years War and WWI through  a reincarnated soldier (Wallace Reid). Unfortunately, the expected juice is missing from Cecil's usually more tempting fruit.  People often forget that Cecil literally learned directing in the public eye. His first film effort, The Squaw Man (1914 ) was one on which he had a great deal of assistance, and when he made Joan a mere two years later, he had not yet cultivated the sublime craft that would make him a master of cinema.

Joan the Woman falls between The Squaw Man and more impressive future efforts like The King of Kings and The Godless Girl, meaning that he was no longer an infant and not yet a genius in his artistic self-discovery when filming commenced. There are elements of his usual intrigue, and his scene compositions are already cookin’, but the eye struggles with what to follow in the somewhat washed-out world he presents. This would not be an issue, had the film a strong actress to guide the audience through the maze of monochromatic hysteria Cecil delivered. Unfortunately, Geraldine Farrar was not up to snuff.

Not without merit: here we see a touch of the growing DeMille
brilliance. He'd only been at it a couple years, folks...

Naturally, Geraldine seemed like a casting coup when production was initiated. DeMille had worked with her on Carmen (also with Wallace Reid) in 1915 and was hoping that the same mutual appreciation and public response would repeat itself in their reunion. Geraldine herself was a fascinating and vibrant woman-- an opera singer with a conscientious demeanor and the charisma demanded of her craft. Without her legendary voice in the silent Carmen, she still performed very well, conveying the sinister sexuality of the notorious gypsy with an enviable panache. Yet as Joan, her effect was not as superb. 

For starters, Geraldine (left) was 34 when she played the role but looked older. Joan only lived to be approximately 19. The age issue could have been compensated-- though the discrepancy is an instant disappointment-- if Geraldine had been able to portray more innocence and delicacy in the part. In this case, she seems more to be struggling in vain to dilute her usual potency and plays Joan the Statue instead of Joan the Woman. Her piety is also unshakable, which makes her character arc monotonous and uninteresting. Her Joan is so in control and seemingly unafraid that she comes off as somewhat pompous. Had Lillian Gish with her effervescent valiance or Mary Pickford with her vulnerable but selfless carriage assumed the role, it would have been a better fit. Geraldine is far too mature, too cynical, too unyielding, and too bored in the role. In truth, she seems to be laughing at her performance even as she gives it-- which may have been for personal reasons, as her life was a bit chaotic at the time. (She had just wed the interfering and unmanageable Lou Tellegen.)

In any case, the rigidity with which Geraldine approaches the role gives the audience little to relate to. In total contrast to the title, she makes Joan a figurehead and an idol and not a flesh and blood human being. Had Geraldine played a plotting British wench or a mistress/mole in the French monarchy, she and the audience would have been happier.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Maria Falconetti

The blame for the aforementioned film cannot be laid on its technical inadequacies. The fact that it was a silent film, black and white, etc, are not excuses for its flaws-- though is should be said that the actual film stock didn’t age well and the version available doesn’t exactly belong in the Criterion Collection. Yet, another silent B&W film involving St. Joan does fit into that category, and its brilliance belongs only in small part to the supremacy of its restoration. Directed in 1928 by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this fittingly French adaptation of Joan’s life does not cover her initial recruitment by the voice of God through her eventual execution, but focuses on a snapshot-- or rather, snapshots-- of her life at its darkest. For 82 minutes, the audience is literally absorbed into Joan’s torment, faith, and tormented faith, as she faces the hypocritical judges who accuse her of heresy and eventually burn her at the stake for her refusal to perjure herself. 

What is amazing about the film is the fact that so little happens in such a brief time, but the art and style are so well-crafted and acted that it is not so much a movie as an experience. The phrase “not a dry seat in the house” could definitely be applied. Truly, truly, it is a breathtaking piece of work and a touching and brutally human portrayal of Joan’s story. Film students should have to study this picture alone to be able to understand how intelligent editing with finesse (see shot sequence, left) and creative camera angles can create near perfection. It is far too simple for filmmakers to leave all the directing to the audience, but Dreyer guides the focus so eloquently that this story-- which in lesser hands could have been shot as a static, staged play-- is transcendent. It is violent, threatening, paranoid, painful, heart-breaking, and fluid.

An integral part of its success belongs to Maria Falconetti, who literally carries the film in a series of intense close-ups. I can only remember seeing a full, standing body shot of her twice-- once when walking before her jury, and the other enduring her last moments at the stake. Again, this actress is not the appropriate age, but Maria succeeds where Geraldine failed because she wears the last years of the intensity of war, social scrutiny, and flagging faith so clearly that one could almost refer to her granular performance as corporeal. She is not your prototypical beauty. Indeed, she is rough, weathered, and-- unlike Geraldine-- androgynous. Every emotion, every doubt, every tick, is exhibited in her eyes-- which are wide and psychotic at times and peacefully humbled at others. With the crafty camera work and skillful cuts, viewers never grow tired of her face as it reflects her rapidly dwindling willpower. Even without this technical assistance, every tear that falls down her cheek is somehow unique, as if delivered from a different and very particular, aching place in her soul. One can literally see her nostrils quiver as she struggles to breath and contain her sobs. In simpler terms, her profound despair kicks you in the guts.

Maria Falconetti's devastation is read on her face in its many mutating
and varying degrees from start to finish. Here, she is shamed and
humiliated for her "heretical" stance and for her denial of gender.

Joan's moment of mental weakness is also brilliantly displayed by Maria. We see Joan as she caves in to her human fears, signing a confession that will clear her name, save her life, but defame her God. Yet, as she raises the pen, one feels a rush relief. Her suffering is over. “To Hell with God, Joan! Save yourself!” This makes her final denial and renouncement of the document all the more painful. When she is reaffirmed as a heretic, one feels both pride and horror on her behalf. The moment when she begins to burn is an uncomfortable inspiration, for the audience fully understands the terrors she went through and overcame. Still, her death feels personal. It is a mix of liberation and torture for the viewer. One understands what the flames are killing, having witnessed the woman so closely. Joan is not an archetype or demigod. Though played by a woman, she is just a fragile girl-- a harmless creaturs. The final scenes, the chaos at the execution, the images of her corpse within the flames, omit an aroma that is sensed if not truly scented. These are ugly, violent scenes, for which reason the film was banned/censored upon its release. 

The final analysis of Passion is not so much to promote the good that Joan did for France nor her victories nor her God. Falconetti does not present a legend. She presents a human. In a strange way, this upsets the perfect ghost of Joan’s memory while glorifying it. It is resplendent.

Ingrid Bergman - Joan of Arc

The final version to which I will lend investigation is Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc. For all that was said of the last film, this one blatantly states the opposite. Fleming, notorious for his sweeping tales and larger-than-life movies-- Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wings-- was clearly not of a mind to tell a story but to build an epic. The tale of Joan’s life from her resolution for conquest and declaration of war to her eventual death is blown a bit out of proportion. It's effect is long-winded and distracting instead of engrossing. Thus, the heart of the story, carried so superbly by Ingrid, struggles to find its way to the surface of the almost threatening color, overwhelming breadth, and transliterated scope of the film. It is, essentially, Joan the Woman overdosing on adrenaline. Fleming adds some brilliant touches, such as implicating the nightly rapes Joan most likely would’ve suffered during her incarceration, but the attempts at decadence, while not entirely unbearable, are out of place. Ingrid and Fleming seem at all times to be telling two different stories. One artist is playing the cello; the other is blowing a trumpet.

Ingrid definitely brought more enthusiasm and physicality to her role as
Joan. She is not just a small young woman who hears voices; she is
a soldier, warrior, and leader, as well as prophet.

I wanted to love the film and prove all the nay-sayers wrong, but I couldn't. The movie was critically panned upon its release, yet Ingrid was such a phenomenon at the time that the public still turned out in droves to see her. This is an example of super-proper casting. To the people of the world, Ingrid Bergman in the early-mid '40s was a saint. She was the angel of Hollywood-- a blessed, untainted, gorgeous soul. Her passion and decency, the persona that the public thrust upon her-- which was not totally untrue-- made her a foregone conclusion for the part. The fact that she had already performed the role on stage only bolstered this theory. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t work. Ingrid is seen too much from afar. The audience is not allowed to get too close, sealing Joan’s identity as an unknowable goddess instead of the mysterious, ethereal but real girl she was.

Despite this, Ingrid herself can be proud of the work she did. Her approach to the role is very much in keeping with her little girl lost identity, and coupled with her rather imposing physique, she makes for quite an interesting heroine (right). In fact, Fleming takes advantage of Ingrid’s length with his long shots, and she dominates the frame with her elegant command and childlike dedication to her quest. Why must we fight? Because... Because, we must! Because, God said so! As such, her over-devotion and wide-eyed responses to the Voice of God come off a bit saccharine at times. However, she is able to neutralize this effect by veering more on the side of immaturity rather than ignorance. Particularly in the scenes where she is questioned by her English partisan judges, her unschooled but honest answers tangle her attackers’ reason and simultaneously hurt their pride: there is nothing worse to them than being outsmarted by an uneducated peasant, not to mention a woman.

Where Ingrid really excels is in her typical simplicity and the honesty with which she communicates her emotion. The most powerful scene is perhaps that where her conscience is tested before the judges. She can uphold her prior testaments that it was God who spoke to her and commanded her to lead the legions of France, but she will be burned at the stake-- a painful death that she has fearfully foreseen. Or she can lie, claim that she acted of her own free will, and spend the rest of her life in jail. The people in the observing crowds, who are already holding her up as their savior and Saint, beg her to sign her confession! She falls to her knees in anguish, and we see only her eyes, filled with wonder and joy, even peace, cascading light and unforced tears down her cheeks. Ingrid signs, the people cheer, and she is safe. When betrayed by her the judges, who keep none of their promises, Joan becomes ashamed at her weakness and recants her faulty testimony. She dies finally understanding the eternal peace that her God had promised her. She goes fearfully but willingly through fire, determined to reach that place.

If the movie were Ingrid as depicted in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the results would have been more commendable. Unfortunately, Fleming is too concerned with winning a wrestling match with himself.

In all versions, one could make an argument as to whether or not Joan was in fact mad. Were her ravings that of a disturbed woman with the kind of "divine" genius that often makes the greatest (Moses) or worst (Hitler) of leaders, or was she truly a woman touched by the hand of some predetermining force of nature that saw calamity and chose in her its warrior? The answer doesn’t matter. In the end, it is not a faith in God that drove any of the women portrayed in these films. It was a profound faith in themselves and the message they felt they must deliver. Their sense of purpose, though shaken under duress and clouded by the usual human uncertainties, is successful. Their effect was to change the shape of the very world.

Boris Karloff as the conspiratorial Bishop questions Julie Harris's
Joan in The Lark (1955).

The most interesting thing about Joan of Arc for our purposes is how the many different actresses who have played her chose to do so because they saw slivers of themselves in her. It was these cracks, flaws, and lights in her character that they then reflected through their separate interpretations. For all her faults, one could say that Geraldine brought to the role her stubborn resolve. Maria brought pain, and Ingrid brought love. None were wholly true; none were wholly false. In searching for their characterizations, each woman probably thought she heard the voice of Joan guiding her, tried to hear her, or at least hoped to let Joan’s spirit speak through her. Were they really communing with a woman whom they had never met and only admired? Were they mad? Again, it doesn’t matter. They made their statements, martyred themselves before our critical judgment and scrutiny, and now, as Joan's women, they remain mislaid pieces to the continuing mystery of her life, death, and universal hold.


  1. I have got to see Passion Of Joan Arc.

    Sad to hear Fleming basically effed up the film. He should have just let Ingrid do Ingrid. Nonetheless, the film still sounds promising. I want to see Ingrid's take on the character.

    1. Definitely look into it. I was truly amazed. The Criterion version also has an amazing Opera score, which normally I'm not into, but it totally works with the images.