The importance of ridicule in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is to humanize a burgeoning saint, in order that her inquisitors might better ignore their own internal religious confusion, and unwittingly reveal her undying piety. This denial of Joan (Maria Falconetti) by her captors, the unnamed Judges (André Lurville, Jacques Arnna, Alexandre Mihalesco, and Léon Larive), is heavily reminiscent of Christ’s treatment en route to crucifixion, and demonstrated most prominently in that scene of the film where Joan is in her cell after an intense round of questioning, and given a wicker crown by ridiculing soldiers; whereupon her resolve finally breaks for the first significant time in the visual narrative. This breakdown, involving tears and increasing physical weakness, as well as increased compliance with the whims of her detractors, marks a turning-point for Falconetti’s character.
This scene is crucial to the filmmakers’ intentions because it portrays a very human Joan. Previously almost superhuman in the film’s earliest depictions of her strength during interrogation, this intimate scene, brief though it may be, in Joan’s cell, marks the point at which she loses all noticeable strength in the film. What follows is torture, which breaks Joan further, more lengthy interrogation, and finally, Joan’s indecisiveness about her own guilt, where she signs a confession only to renounce it, and suffer the ultimate temporal defeat in being burned at the stake. This treatment of Joan—this ridicule of her—as a sort of Christ figure weakens her resolve. How this relates to the filmmakers’ goals is that it allows the audience to understand that Joan was in fact a very real person, and that the only true resolve one can have in times of trial is faith. This is also the scene which commences Joan’s Passion, from which the film takes its name.
What is revealed about Joan in this scene is importantly, that she is human, she can suffer, she can be disparaged, and that oftentimes, even she is just as unaware of God’s intention as her inquisitors. Prior to this scene, the film consists of very intensely-portrayed interrogation scenes, where the importance of the human face is established from the onset. However, in this ‘Crown of Thorns’ scenes, which it will be termed here for ease of reference, Joan’s face is only partially given close-ups, and every time, she is wearing the pseudo-Crown of Thorns, or looking down in contemplative despair.
The scene commences once her inquisitors leave her cell, and Joan looks to her barred door, aware suddenly that yet more personalities are set to appear in her increasing agony. Three soldiers, (uncredited), bearing faces of mischief, enter and they begin to stare Joan down. The cell is sparse, as is much of the setting of the film, and the only two compelling pieces in the scene aesthetically are the barred door, the throne of sorts, with its bulbous decorations, and the pseudo-Crown of Thorns, first seen resting in a corner on the floor, and perhaps symbolizing the tossing-away of one’s faith in a king, which the film explores later, when a fabricated letter from France’s king is read to Joan to trick her. The rest of the mise-en-scène consists of simple costumes, all male in this case, where large buttons feature prominently, but colour other than grey or black does not.
Assessing the cinematography throughout the scene, the opening close-up on Joan’s face is at this point in the film, already classic, shot straight-on, allowing her to look iconic even before martyrdom. Canted angles are used primarily to depict the soldiers in close-up, indicative of a sinister nature, perhaps; while Joan is always shown in either her classic close-up, straight-on, or in a medium close-up, hobbled on a low chair or stool, showing more of her body than those of the soldiers. The close-up of Joan becomes extreme when the soldiers place the menacing crown on her, while slight, travelling shots of the soldiers working in tandem to toss the crown along, and dangle it from one of their swords, is reminiscent of soldiers marching in an ordered line, or cruelly, of a village fire brigade dousing flames in a line or chain of command. This could perhaps foreshadow Joan’s forthcoming immolation, which has not yet been mentioned in the film. The cinematography is clean here, and simple, emphasizing clarity or ultra-clarity of image over completion of the image—very rarely is anything or anyone shown in their entirety in this film, let alone this scene. The lighting is even simpler than the camerawork, all characters in the scene being lit hard from above, revealing numerous defects and blemishes, with some fill from the right side of the frame, softening what little it can.
The goal of the filmmakers in this scene is to really feel for Joan. However, with the playful albeit intrusive nature of the soldiers tormenting Joan as a Chrst-like figure—they even say, “She really looks like a daughter of God, eh?” which is the only intertitle of the scene—could be amusing, making a pun on scripture and on her situation as a suspected heretic. Either way, the filmmakers are justified in including this scene in the final edit of the film. It transitions Joan’s resolve from strong-willed to questioning and even doubting her purpose. The filmmakers do not communicate their perversion of Christian imagery only by the Crown of Thorns, nor by simply Joan’s confused gender role–is she akin to a female Christ?
A daughter of God?—but rather by the pseudo-throne in the room, the fact of Joan’s trial, the fact that the room is a holding cell, and the fact that an arrow is given by the soldiers to Joan. This may be more an anachronistic element inserted by the filmmakers, as they are known to have done in this film several times, and this particular one would be a reference, possibly, to Shakespeare’s pronouncement on Hamlet’s suffering, referring to the instance of “suffer[ing] the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune[.]” Or, the arrow could be representative of the soldiers’ trade. The filmmakers are very apparently painting Joan here as one suffering internally, as well as physically. Ridicule here is as significant as Cartaphilus striking Christ on the shoulder en route to Golgotha, and likewise, these soldiers are breaking Joan down, moreso than the interrogations have at least in real time.
Returning briefly to cinematography, editing was overlooked in order to save its analysis for the present, more opportune situation now that the perversions of psychology and the Christ myth have been addressed. The editing of this scene is a superb example of early studies in cross-cutting, and the Kuleshov Effect merges here with a sort of Christ Effect, signalling to the audience that Joan is very human, very weak and feeble, increasingly so, and that like her, we all are such, and in a sense, capable of leading Christ-like lives—both in times of suffering and in times more conducive to practice. The cross-cutting in this scene serves to show an interlocking series of two things: the deed, and then the reaction. It begins quickly, with Joan’s classic close-up, then a medium shot of the soldiers, laughing, heckling—this is the deed—and it then cuts to Joan closing her eyes—the reaction.
This continues for nearly the entire scene, but the use of close-ups speeds up, not in rapidity shown on-screen, but in frequency. Joan is now always in close-up, and increasingly, are her detractors, to the point of only the tool of ridicule being visible in the frame, such as the sword, the arrow, the crown, they all feature as characters in this scene. What this simple cinematographic tool serves to accomplish is almost Formalist in its approach to Joan’s state of mind in this scene. Are they point-of-view shots? It is possible that the shots are quickly depicting the rapid-fire breakdown of Joan’s resolve. As the soldiers ridicule her, these shots increase, the audience is almost uncertain what they are looking at in parts of the sequence. The real intent of the filmmakers in this scene is to prepare the audience for the rapture, for Joan’s ecstasy.
Ridicule is the tipping-point in this film, and this scene exemplifies it. However, it is not ridicule itself which breaks Joan, but rather the flurry of doubt posited by her inquisitors, who, unsure of their own faith in the Church, project those fears onto their captive. By this point in the film, Joan has been through some lengthy, and multiple rounds of questioning, wherein oftentimes the questions border on the tautological. The inquisitors begin the ridicule process by actually ridiculing Joan’s appearance, and then her age, and then testing her on tenets of the Church which the inquisitors themselves seem highly to doubt. They rephrase and even outright repeat their questions, in so doing, ridiculing Joan’s competence—and only demonstrating the weaknesses of theirs.
This leads to the final straw, Joan being ridiculed in the diegetic—and foreshadowed in the non-diegetic—as a Christ figure. Really, all involved in Joan’s trial are displaying and insecurity which perhaps Dreyer wished to explore while portraying this saint: the inconsistencies in the Catholic Church and the implications such insecurity can have on the faithful—and faithless. The audience is left with the message of being faithful to oneself.
The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. 1928. Accessed via YouTube.com
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR3Ah9joyEI>, November 3, 2009.