Arc Light

For my thoughts on Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, read this old piece. But for a review of the OTHER 1920s Joan film, the one contemporary audiences flocked to in preference, see this week’s edition of The Forgotten, the first in a short series celebrating the productions of Pathe-Natan, a short-lived incarnation of the French film company Pathe…

Can you treat a production company as an auteur? Certainly, if you give any credence to the genius of the system. (And, sure, the system can be idiotic at times, but so can the most respected geniuses.)

While on the subject of Joan of Arc and idiocy, I feel it’s not too late to say that Luc Besson’s JOAN OF ARC is an awful, awful piece of work, so putrid that it’s a source of wonder to me that people to this day do not point, and laugh, and hurl tiny stinging pellets of owl-shit at Besson when he appears in public. The reason for my distaste is not the director’s girlfriend, Milla Jojobabitch, who I think is perfectly adequate given the kind of Joan she’s been asked to play. My dislike is based on one scene – one of the foulest messes ever splashed upon a screen.

Besson invents for Joan a sister murdered by the English, in best BRAVEHEART manner (OK, it wasn’t William Wallace’s sister, but you get my drift — apparently a movie hero needs to be motivated by a thirst for personal revenge, not patriotism or religion). Said sister is not only murdered but raped, and in that order. And Besson sees fit to throw in a bit of comedy relief at the same time.

Said sister is actually skewered by a broadsword, nailed to a wall behind which Joan is hiding (so Besson can shoot the bloody blade emerging inches from Joan’s horrified face, of course). Then the murderer has his way with the corpse. Then he turns to two companions, resting at the kitchen table, and says something along the lines of “Who wants to go next?”

And the two guys turn to each other in a synchronized double-take, eyebrows raised. The comedy style is out of John Landis, and to say it sits somewhat awkwardly in the overall tone of the scene is a bit like saying a fart gag during the Auschwitz shower scene in SCHINDLER’S LIST might have seemed a bit out-of-keeping. I was really annoyed by the double-takes in THE EXTRAORDINARILY PROTRACTED TITLE OF ADELE BLANC-SEC, mainly because they always tried to force a laugh from the audience when nothing funny had actually happened, but possibly because the acrid tang of his JOAN was still in my mental nostrils.

So I dunno. If you live anywhere near Besson, or find yourself in Cannes when he’s got a film playing, maybe you need to make sure you have some owl pellets in your side pocket or purse. I’m just saying.

Fortunately, nothing as bad as the Besson atrocity happens in Marco de Gastyne’s LA VIE MERVEILLEUSE DE JEANNE D’ARC. Although, ouch:

“Non, je ne regrette rien…”

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15 Responses to “Arc Light”

  1. Caspar Typjerg’s commentary for PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, the Criterion, mentions this film in connection with the Dreyer, he said that it was quite effective.

    It was only in the 20s that the modern vogue for Joan of Arc began. After the Church canonized her as a saint and then Shaw wrote SAINT JOAN and Dreyer took inspiration from that for his own film. It hasn’t been pointed out but Dreyer’s films had huge sets, the largest ever built at that time for a French film and he ended up working with close-ups, creating an impression that the sets were more spare than they actually were.

    As for Besson, the less said the better. Jacques Rivette, in an interview before that film’s release mentioned liking one of Besson’s earlier films and he discussed his own JEANNE LA PUCELLE with Sandrine Bonnaire. He said that he hoped Besson makes the first commerically successful film on Joan of Arc.

    As for me, I also like very much the underrated SAINT JOAN, Preminger’s adaptation with Jean Seberg, with a screenplay by Graham Greene, with a cast that includes Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook and others.

  2. The Pathe-Natan is the first commercially successful Joan film! And the last.

    The Preminger has definite merits, and Seberg no longer looks like the disaster contemporary reviewers reported. Plus Widmark is rather extraordinary, cast way against type.

    Dreyer’s sets are recognizably big, but never seem huge, except for the exterior. The presentation never emphasizes their scale, as you say. I think the starkness is built in, and comes partly from the use of white.

  3. Preminer’s Saint Joan is indeed wonderful. The hostile reviews that greeted jean Seberg are incomrehensible. She’s a great actress giving a great performance.

    Besson is an idiot.

    Bresson is a master. his hour-long Trial of Joan of Arc is as fascinating as it is severe.

    Rivette’s rendition is most interestign for the fact that all the questions asked her at the final trial were asked first when she was trying to get in touch with the Dauphin. Therefore he stages that first session in full and doesn’t bother all that much with the second. The battle scenes are remarkable, especially for the moment when Bonnaire’s Joan is wounded and begins to cry. It astonishes her and everyone else for they believed God would shield her from pain.

  4. I think it’s time for someone to do a new Joan centered on the fact that she was history’s first important transgendered individual.

  5. Why, I was reading the excellent “In Your Face!” only two days ago, having finally seen the Dreyer at the BFI… Such fluids those faces emitted! If Dreyer’s point was to make the audience empathise with Joan, I wasn’t – well – feeling it myself. The fact that the interrogators stared straight into our face while Joan’s gaze never reciprocated I found insufferable in close up. I had the same problem with Jonathan Miller’s “Alice in Wonderland” (and perhaps Dreyer’s film was an inspiration… both feature a series of batty old men trotted out to be ignored by a wise, young woman). In a way, the film’s most powerful argument is the need for somebody to come along and invent sound. It doesn’t lack movement, but there is something inslolubly slow about a silent film based on court testimony; what I wouldn’t have given for subtitles instead of intertitles. (“And what is the release?” … … … Death, say death… it’s death, we get it, death… … or cut now, I know this isn’t an episode of Mad Men but we get it… … Her lips move. Intertitle: “Death.” I KNOW.) The burning at the stake was incredible but made me feel like a voyeur. Maybe that was the point. I’m not sure. I did gawp.

  6. I saw the Besson, and though I didn’t share the incandescent hatred David does, I thought it was awfully stupid. So much so in fact that I cracked a few jokes (not good ones) while watching. It seemed in spirit with the meatheadedness of what I was seeing.

  7. Well, certainly the Dreyer is a silent film based around talk, but it’s very rhythmic question-and-answer stuff. So the intertitles form part of the ebb and flow.

    That thing of the interrogators looking straight at us as the protag looks off to the side: Jonathan Demme’s been doing it for decades and, talented as he is, he can never get it to work. I wasn’t even aware of it in the Dreyer, so it must have worked for me.

    Transgendered, temporal-lobe-epilepsy-afflicted Joan could make a good film. Dreyer’s film certainly gives the impression that wearing men’s clothes was her greatest crime as far as her captors were concerned.

  8. That’s emphasized over and over again in all the trial transcripts. Joan’s captors wanted her to “renounce” this and wear women’s clothes more than anything else. Hers was over and above all a crime of gender identity.

  9. Will search for some owl pellets, as you are so right about Luc Besson’s “The Messenger” (he drove Milla Jovovich over the edge during filming.) Everything about it was wrong, wrong, wrong!

    Thank you for calling attention to Marco de Gastyne’s masterpiece, LA VIE MERVEILLEUSE DE JEANNE D’ARC. I am fortunate to have it in my film library.

    Dreyer’s film “The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc” is inspiring composers to compete with Richard Einhorn’s oratorio that is now the official soundtrack accompanying the film. For whatever reasons, Dreyer strikes a deep cord that resonates for critics and audiences alike.

  10. The thing is as effective as Einhorn’s music is, I always felt the movie should be seen without music, as Dreyer once suggested it should. Or alternatively, Tag Gallagher mentioned in an article that the film originally played with a musical score intended to play in all theaters and that this should be brought back to the film.

    Certainly Philip Glass’ music for the Cocteau films can’t replace the original score by Georges Auric.

    Jeanne d’Arc is really a one-of-a-kind figure. If she didn’t exist, she might have to be invented, and certainly a transgendered Jeanne would work in today’s context.

  11. Wonder if the Fleming-directed Joan movie, the one with Ingrid Bergman, contains anything worth seeing — its flop status notwithstanding.

    Side-Note: I remember reading an amusing quote from Bergman, in reference to this and UNDER CAPRICORN and the Milestone-directed ARCH OF TRIUMPH, about having earned the status of The Actress Who Destroys Studios. (I’m drawing upon my memory for this, so apologies in advance for inexact phrasing.)

  12. Antonioni’s La Signora Senza Camelie features the production of a fictional flop Joan. It looks quite good, but the critics declare that Bose’s starlet is “no Falconetti.”

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