#40. Joan of Arc (1928)

A mistake that was bound to happen eventually: I forgot to enter the Joan of Arc review in its proper place, as #40, so I’ve had to go back and retroactively change the numbers of the past few movies and now, rather than slip this discreetly back into the proper #40 slot, I’ll just slap it down here. Look upon my mistakes and despair.

When I was a senior in college I went through a sort of crisis and started spending a lot of time with freshmen, would go on long chainsmoking walks with them through campus at 2 a.m. and invite them up for cheap wine and conversation beforehand and afterward. There are ways that, looking back, it seems sinister or weird to me that I did so much of this, since they were all eighteen or nineteen and got on my nerves a lot, but mostly I was just sad, looking for some really animated and starry-eyed company to distract me from the prospect of graduation, adult life, impending failures and such. Work. My friends would call me a cradle robber because they thought it was a sex thing, which it wasn’t, but I did hook up with one of them. Her name was K. I saw her around campus a lot, she lived in the next building, and one day in the dining hall I went and sat with her and her roommate to say that they were welcome to come over to my dorm that night because I’d be having some friends over, that we were all just gonna sit around and talk about stuff, drink cheap wine, eat. So K. and her roommate came over, along with three others, and we all sat in my kitchen and drank wine out of Dixie cups and I made bagels at one point, segmented several times and smeared with strawberry cream cheese — a hit. Eventually somebody brought up religion. Christopher Hitchens and his influence was huge. So we’re going around the room while the freshmen take their stabs at religion, saying “more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason,” and so on. Each one is more vulgar and scathing and proud than the last. Then we get to K., who’s got the sleeves of her sweatshirt pulled down over her palms, and she shrugs and says, “I’ve got my doubts. I was raised Presbyterian, though, and I thought it was fine. I’m still figuring it out.” And then she was done. The next person took over with his own rant. But her influence on the room was huge. She was calm and quiet, respectful, unoffended and shamelessly undecided. It was the most gorgeous thing. Eventually the group dwindled away and later that night we jumped a fence together and walked a half mile through fog to get a 4 a.m. breakfast at the Cuban cafeteria on Coral Way and 107. She got a big plate of hashbrowns that she ate without ketchup and on the walk back, at dawn, the fog was burning out and we parted with a hug, very friendly, both of us later talking about how we’d each wanted to hold hands. A few hours later, nighttime again, she sauntered up to me on the sidewalk, all in black, and hooked an arm through mine, a puffy blue thermos full of Jack Daniels in her hand, and she took me on a walk through campus. Laughed at how tense I got when we passed some cops. Anyway. We didn’t date or have sex but she slept over a few times and once when I complimented how green her eyes were she blinked and assured me they were blue. Our little affair was brief and quaint but, in my memory of senior year, our few nights together exist as like this snowglobe of peace, enclosed from the surrounding chaos and worry, just good intimate conversation with a good intimate person. We’ve gotten beer together a couple times in the years since then. She lives way north now. You’d like her.

I’ve been serious about religion at times and at others I’ve hated or dismissed it but now I’m basically indifferent. The aspect of it that interests me, and that’s explored here in C.T. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, is the idea of having something in your life that feels like such a profound calling, such a cause, that you would stand trial in defense of it, endure humiliation and torture, die. In high school and college i was so much about “the primacy of the intellect” (Cormac) and couldn’t have seen myself being steered from that path, toward something spiritual, nor ever thinking that “the life of the mind” (Coens) wouldn’t suffice. What I hadn’t anticipated is that, even from a secular stance, there’s something akin to spiritual sustenance that isn’t always satisfied by purely intellectual stimulus.

Those ideas didn’t come to me while watching the movie, though, they popped up a day later. The movie was totally engrossing and beautiful, I wasn’t really thinking about anything else. I went into this knowing nothing about the story of Joan of Arc (yes, I’m embarrassed to say that) and I’m not sure of how that might or might not influence my view of the character but, at least as Dreyer presents her, I thought she was totally heartbreaking and sympathetic — but also totally foreign for basically the reasons listed above (unremitting conviction about her purpose, willing to die for something, etc.).

The Passion of Joan of Arc is shot almost entirely in closeups, which has a weird effect on the viewer that I can’t quite articulate, but it fits the film. Apart from Renee Falconetti being incredibly beautiful, and frame din perpetually intimate closeups, the constant flux of her emotions also put a bit of a spell over me. The way she moves so gracefully from grief to pride to euphoria to terror to resignation to doubt. She’s amazing here. Memorably and hypnotic and stunning and familiar, wonderfully, like this face I once saw munching hashbrowns in fog.

Read Emma Woll-Wenzel’s piece about The Passion of Joan of Arc, commissioned by Thousand Movie Project, here!


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