The Cinematic Saint: Joan of Arc

 
artwork by Anastasia Bolinder
 

by Joel Mayward

In the center of a roundabout in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland, Oregon stands an enormous golden statue. Donated to the city in 1924 by a wealthy philanthropist, the bronze figure is dressed in battle armor and sitting atop a majestic warhorse, a banner raised in the posture of victory. I’ve driven by this statue for years, never noticing who it represented. Four such statues were commissioned by the donor: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and—like a strange variation on the faces of Mount Rushmore—this dissonant contribution: Joan of Arc.

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Joan of Arc is….

The way one finishes this sentence is dependent upon the particular image of Joan being referenced. Artists ranging from Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tchaikovsky, Leonard Cohen, and Arcade Fire each depicted Joan through diverse mediums and with a multitude of interpretations. The depictions of Joan reveal just as much about the cultural context and personal intent of the author as they do about the historical Maid. The medium of movies is especially significant, as Joan of Arc is second only to Jesus as a religious figure depicted within film. Nadia Margolis’s 1990 book Joan of Arc in History, Literature and Film lists 53 films in which Joan is the central character or an important motif, only a small percentage of more than 1500 listed works of art, as well as the dozen other films and TV shows since Margolis’ book was published.

An uneducated peasant girl from a small village in France, Joan saw visions of angels and saints instructing her to support French King Charles VII, leading her to become an unlikely military hero at the Siege of Orléans and a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholic church, the same ecclesial power which would canonize her as a saint nearly 500 years later. Known as La Pucelle d'Orléans—the “Maid of Orléans”—Joan’s life was brief and dramatic. She dressed in men’s clothing, claimed to speak directly to the Archangel Michael, and underwent an intense, well-documented trial in Rouen before being burned at the stake at age 19.  

So why does a French girl from the fifteenth century continue to captivate the artistic and cultural imagination? Out of all the saints and religious figures, what is so compelling about her story? Why do we keep making and watching Joan of Arc movies?

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The list of people who have made Joan of Arc films reads like a “who’s who” of renowned directors. One of the first is a 1900 ten-minute silent film from French filmmaker George Méliès, Jeanne D’Arc. A collage of twelve static scenes with hand-tinted colors and elaborate costumes, Méliès’ film lacks much of his signature imagination and whimsical flairs. Known for his magical and mystical aesthetic—watch A Trip to the Moon and you’ll see his eccentric vision at work—Méliès’ Joan comes across as helpless and diminutive in relation to her surroundings. Still, the final heavenly scene points to Méliès’ high view of Joan’s piety, despite his conventional approach to her story. The scene at the stake is distinctive for the bright orange coloring of the fire and smoke, creating a hallucinatory effect, clouding Joan from the audience’s vision.

Another vivid silent film, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1916 Joan the Woman follows his signature tendencies towards over-the-top spectacle. The film begins with an English soldier in the trenches of WWI as he discovers an ancient sword in the dirt. He is visited by a vision of Joan, who declares he must expiate for past sins against her. After a biographical depiction of her life, told as a sweeping flashback, the film concludes with the soldier agreeing to a suicide mission after being inspired by Joan’s story. DeMille’s Joan, portrayed by Geraldine Farrar, is presented as a patriotic figure meant to inspire the American masses in the midst of WWI, a not-too-subtle propaganda piece. Both DeMille and Méliès offer a conventionally feminine Joan, one who lives up to DeMille’s chosen title of Joan the Woman. Both films were made before Joan’s canonization in 1920, yet both seem to suggest that Joan would soon be recognized as a saint.

You know Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the captivating beauty of Jean Seberg? Her first film credit—the one where she was discovered out of hundreds of other American teenagers who auditioned—was in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. In casting a young, non-professional actress in the iconic role, Preminger may have been trying to channel the spirit of the historical Joan, another teenage girl who proved to garner miraculous success (though it didn’t work for Preminger, as Seberg’s Joan comes across as stilted in her performance, her inexperience shining through). In contrast to an unseasoned teenage Joan, cinematic icon Ingrid Bergman portrayed the Maid twice—once for Victor Fleming’s lush and dramatic Joan of Arc, the other for Roberto Rossellini’s surreal Giovanna d'Arco al rogo. She was nominated for an Oscar for Fleming’s film, which was also recognized for its cinematography and costume design.

Then there’s the two-part epic historical drama from Jacques Rivette—Joan the Maid is split into The Battles and The Prisons, and the film stands as one of the most accurate and full portrayals of the life of Joan. Rivette opts for precision and detail, using outdoor scenes and elaborate long shots to emphasize the historicity of the on-screen events.

And we haven’t even discussed Luc Besson’s 1999 grungy, hallucinatory action film The Messenger, where Joan—depicted by Milla Jovovich as shrill, frantic, and hysterical—is given psychological PTSD motivations for her visions and subsequent political power. It’s not historically accurate, or even that entertaining, but it’s certainly a different approach within the ever-expanding Joan canon, and a precursor for Jovovich’s Resident Evil films.

History, fantasy, melodrama, action, romance, comedy, secularized, spiritualized. You name the genre, style, or theme, and a Joan film likely has it.

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The Joan films are examples of hagiography, a genre that idealizes its subject through adulation and vivid imagery of the saintly figure, moving beyond historicity into the realm of myth. A hagiographic account of a saint’s life includes the biographical elements, as well as accounts of the miraculous and majestic, and possibly the inclusion of the saint’s death or martyrdom. When adapted to film, these saintly stories have a personal appeal as audiences find themselves spiritually inspired by the on-screen events. They’re akin to the story of a religious superhero, the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a religious tradition. In her book, The Religious Film, Pamela Grace unpacks the elements for what she calls the “hagiopic”:

In a far more direct way than any other film genre, the hagiopic deals with basic questions about suffering, injustice, a sense of meaninglessness, and a longing for something beyond the world we know…. [T]hey also take the viewer through a journey that involves doubt, struggle, and transformation; and they also usually allow for a variety of responses and interpretations, mirroring spectators’ own spiritual questioning.1

The hagiopic has several unique characteristics: an interweaving of chronological time with a sense of eternity; a concern with suffering and self-sacrifice; and a narrative structure centered on a protagonist with a divine vision and vocation which is threatening to the present religious and political institutions, resulting in their persecution and death2. The hagiopic allows for both realist and formalist flourishes to exist within the same film, pointing towards the transcendent through the immanent.

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Two Joan of Arc films have garnered significant critical praise in their focus on a single moment in Joan’s history: her trial at Rouen before the Catholic inquisition. For The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer sought out the most accurate historical material he could find about Joan, determined not to make a huge epic with sweeping battles or melodramatic flair. For his script, he used only the trial notes or Joan’s own recorded words, insisting that the actors say the exact words adapted directly from the historical trial, even though the film was silent and their lines wouldn’t be audibly recorded. Dreyer’s vision of the trial proceedings (which historically took five months) focuses on the final abjuration of Joan, creating a condensed, intense environment for both Joan and the audience.

With an underlying nod to German expressionism, Dreyer’s film uses minimalist settings and backdrops in order to focus entirely on the characters’ faces. He uses low camera shots, Dutch tilts, and extreme close-ups to create an emotionally intense experience for the audience. Using the standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1 created a square-like frame, allowing Dreyer to fill the frame with a character’s whole face. In reference to his use of close-ups, Dreyer once said, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never be tired of exploring.”3 The actors wore no makeup, and actress Maria Falconetti’s expressive visage is deeply affecting, her eyes wide with fear and pathos. Dreyer wanted the audience to experience the exhausting strain on Joan, creating an oppressive film-viewing environment. The constant close-ups feel claustrophobic, intimate, and revelatory. By inviting the audience to share in Joan’s suffering and spirituality, Dreyer also puts us on trial, participating in passion.

Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc is only similar to Dreyer’s film in historical setting, not in formal approach. Susan Sontag writes, “There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.”4 Dreyer is the former, while Bresson’s approach is the latter. Bresson’s Joan film is composed of static, medium shots, mostly of people talking, following the sequential moments within Joan’s trial. We watch her walk back and forth from her prison cell to the trial room with a repetition that threatens boredom. The film is barely an hour in length, with few interludes; scenes are cut short abruptly, and the pacing is slow and steady. The deadpan tone is a striking contrast to Dreyer’s overly emotive scenes. Where Dreyer fosters intimacy, Bresson creates distance between the viewer and Joan, notably through showing her from the point of view of priests and guards peering at her through a hole in the wall of her prison cell. For Bresson, we are simply voyeurs of Joan’s pain, outsiders peering at an awkward distance. Bresson’s Joan is aloof, both in the film and historically. A close-up of the scribe’s hand that suddenly stops recording the trial is indicative of Bresson’s approach: the historical gap between Joan and us is too wide to ever fully know the true saint. Ultimately, both are well-crafted films depicting similar events with divergent results, as noted by Paul Schrader:

Dreyer’s film is a passion: Bresson’s is a trial. Both depict the historical Joan, but whereas Dreyer emphasizes…the psychology of her existence, Bresson emphasizes the physiology of her existence. Both Joans are alienated, but whereas Dreyer’s Joan is reactive to her social surroundings, Bresson’s Joan is a solitary soul, responding primarily to her voices. Both films reveal the sainthood of Joan: Dreyer through her humanity, Bresson through her divinity. Both view Joan as a suffering intercessor between God and man: Dreyer as the crucified, sacrificial lamb, Bresson as the resurrected, glorified icon.5

 

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This all comes back to my original question: Why is Joan such a captivating figure for both filmmakers and audiences? While many saints left behind relics for future generations’ veneration, Joan left no written theological treatises or sacred objects. In the mythology of her story, her heart remained unburned by the fires of the stake. Her charred remains were nevertheless burned again, reduced completely to ashes, and then scattered in the Seine River. Yet the historical record of her trial is remarkably detailed and ripe for artistic adaptation. Here is the remarkable story of a young woman driven by a vision, empowered to lead a nation, then victimized and martyred by an oppressive religious and political system. Anyone who has been marginalized or suffered at the hands of others—from political refugees fleeing from war, to survivors of sexual abuse, to those unjustly fired from their jobs, to middle schoolers being bullied—can find comfort and companionship in the story of Joan.

We can find Joan all around us, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. I see her in Katniss Everdeen, Ellen Ripley, and Imperator Furiosa, fictional female fighters and leaders who remain sympathetic and approachable, perhaps precisely due to their resilience in the face of suffering. I see her in Peggy Olson from Mad Men, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy Schmidt6. I see Joan in my own four-year-old daughter, full of spunk and vigor, whose own French name means “famous warrior.” She’s paradoxically delicate and a badass. So was Joan.

Perhaps the answer to her cultural enchantment lies in her ability to be the icon for nearly any political, religious, or personal ideology. As a young peasant woman of humble origins, Joan is a champion of the poor and marginalized. As a defender of the monarchy and a nationalist, she is a symbol of patriotism. Both the Left and the Right have adopted her as the picturesque saint for their respective ideologies. If you’re pro-government, she’s your saint. If you’re anti-government, she’s also your saint. If you’re a conservative prude, she’s a humble teenage virgin who often submitted herself to the male authority figures around her. If you’re a progressive feminist, she opposed societal norms regarding gender roles and sexuality, choosing to wear men’s clothes and often effectively taking charge in a patriarchal culture. Both the transgender atheist and the traditional Roman Catholic can find common ground in their appreciation for Joan of Arc. This in itself is something miraculous.

Leaving behind no relics of her own, the Joan films serve as a means to venerate her, allowing contemporary audiences to share in her journey and potentially glimpse the transcendent through the hagiographic. Joan of Arc is conservative and progressive, feminine and androgynous, a martyr and a maid, a soldier and a pacifist, both the glory of the Church and a victim at the hands of a corrupt religious establishment. She is whatever the filmmaker—and audience—needs her to be.


1 Pamela Grace, The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 3.

2 Ibid., 13.

3  Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 138

4 Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” in Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: TIFF Cinemateque, 2011), 55.

5 Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 121.

6 Females are strong as hell.


Joel Mayward is a writer, pastor, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. The author of three books, he writes on film and spirituality atwww.cinemayward.com.