The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)


In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer famously makes minimal use of medium shots and long shots; the entire anecdote is told mainly with close-ups.* In this sense, the film is seemingly composed of a sequence of isolated images. We see faces in frames, but rarely complete human figures; their spatial positions in relation to one another remain ambiguous. Details of faces, especially of Joan’s (Maria Falconetti’s), work as stylistic tools to set up the scene. In other words, facial expressions, particularly the movements of the eyes, are the primary means to establish and generate the spatial and causal relationships between the different characters.

The use of close-ups is a part of the film’s narrative as much as of its style. Joan’s face dominates most of the film; this use does not simply emphasise the sorrow and pain of the protagonist, but it also functions as a metaphor in the narrative. Especially in the long trial scene, Joan is isolated, trapped, judged and put on display; she is alone against others at all times. The close-up visually corresponds to this situation separating her from the angry crowd of priests and judges. Furthermore, it puts us in a position similar to that of her spectators because most of the time we look only at her. Being on the side of the interrogators but not having the ability to interfere makes us vulnerable, and feel sympathetic to Joan. Dreyer claimed that such was the role of these close-ups: ‘to move the viewers so that they would feel in their own flesh the suffering endured by Joan’.** For him, the close-up was ‘the place where film could develop as a unique art form, able to move in close and concentrate attention on the human being in a way that the stage could never do’.*** In that sense, evaluating each individual shot on its own is as important as how one responds to the way they link to each other. As we observe Joan more closely and for a longer time, we become aware of her emotions. This stylistic choice turns us into inept and silent spectators of the trial and helps us understand Joan’s situation; it is significant in explaining and reinforcing Joan’s solitude in martyrdom as well as setting a point of view to present the injustice employed towards her. The close-up is exploited in the film as much as Joan is exploited in the story.


Another alternative function of the close-ups is to control spatial and causal connections between shots.  In continuity editing, the main purpose of the eye-match is to maintain a realistic sense of space in the relationship between shots; the characters’ looks do not contradict the sense of space established between people and/or objects.  The off-screen look of a character is consequently matched with the object or another person’s look in the next shot.  The Passion of Joan of Arc utilises eye-matches in the same way: we infer whom Joan is looking at and, to a certain extent, what she might be thinking, according to the direction in which she is looking.****  However, the rarity of establishing shots complicates our attempts to visualise the space.  The close-ups compress, flatten and distort the space around Joan; therefore, they transform the function of a conventional eye-match.  The purpose of the missing establishing shots is sustained through the use of the detailed expressions and looks.  The character looks off-screen in one direction but the next shot is not always a reverse shot; furthermore, the camera never frames the crowd together in the trial room.  We have to complete the missing pieces of the space by scrutinising the characters’ faces.  In other words, spatial inconsistency and confusion is something that makes up the style and is necessary in reflecting the mood.  Even though some of the reciprocating shots are missing and the space is constructed with disconnected shots, this discontinuity functions as an element of continuity in the narrative.  There may not be unity of space, but it does not obstruct our understanding of the narrative.  Dreyer’s concern is with Jean’s image in each individual frame more than with a continuous and smooth flow between shots.  His use of décor and framing reinforces this concern.  The camera’s position at very low angles produces oblique and unfamiliar planes; we see the world from an oddly adjusted point of view.  This is especially apparent in the shots that frame doorways; as people enter through them, the doors seem to be slanted and the people seem to be standing tilted to the side.  Added to the limitation of space that the close-ups create are the distorted planes that these angles generate.  However, the fact that this is ‘an indeterminate space’*****  does not make us demand more information.  Bordwell writes that ‘the neutral white background often becomes the only continuity factor across the cut’ and this continuity is enough to construct the relationship between the narrative logic and the cinematic space that he argues the film rejects.******


The meaning and continuity of the narrative in Joan of Arc are formed in each image as well as their order in a sequence.  The focus of the narrative is not how and why Joan ended up in the trial; it is the relationship between Joan and her interrogators.  The verdict is made before the trial starts and it is slowly imposed on Joan.  The narrative of the film is less about the linearity of the trial – where and when Joan was caught or who took which side – and more about the details of Joan’s suffering, her helplessness against the men and the sharp opposition between the two.  The spatial and causal elements of the narrative in The Passion of Joan of Arc are completed with the close-ups and our responses to them.  Any gaps produced with the use of close-ups function as part of the continuity.


*The original print was burned and no copy of the film was available until 1981 when it was found in a psychiatric hospital in Norway. The restorers believe the version we see today is very close to Dreyer’s original.

**Quoted in O’Brien, Charles (1996) ‘Rethinking National Cinema: Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and the Academic Aesthetic’, Cinema Journal, 35: 4, Summer, 21.

***Quoted in Scalia, Bill (2004) ‘Contrasting Visions of a Saint: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Luc Besson’s The Messenger’, Literature Film Quarterly, 32: 3, 182.

**** For a detailed examination of how the eye-match is used in the film see David Bordwell’s book The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (1981: 66-92).  He first explains the norms of continuity editing and shows how Dreyer sometimes deviates from this use and how at other times adopts it.  According to him, this is an inconsistency that makes it hard for us to construct a coherent narrative space.  Bordwell’s method of analysing the film shot by shot is useful, even if contrasting the shots with continuity editing limits and misinterprets what the film uniquely does with its style.

*****O’Brien 1996: 19.

******Bordwell, David (1981) The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p.78 and 66.

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