Sunday, 8 February 2009

Joan of Arc x 2. . .

Cinematheque Ontario is presenting yet another fascinating series of films this spring - I'm basically camping out there for the next few months. One of their themed offerings is a look at six very different films about Joan of Arc. I decided that three was about my limit for watching the maid burn and I've now seen the first two - both rare cinematic treats. First up last night was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. Focusing on the end of Joan's trial and her death, this movie is a stunning example of the power of black and white films and why even a large tv can never replace the effect of the big screen in a darkened theatre. Dreyer zooms in on stark close-ups for most of the film with the faces completely dominating the screen against mostly a white or gray background. It's an astonishingly work of visual power - even scary at times. Every tear that slowly coursed down Maria Falconetti's face was riveting. This film also takes an extremely bleak look at death, from shots of maggots squirming in the empty eyesockets of a skull to the slowly blackening form of Joan dying on the stake. A special treat for this silent film screening was its live accompaniment by pianist William O'Meara. While I've certainly watched silent films on DVD from my couch (a favourite is Pabst's 1929 Pandora's Box with the enchanting Louise Brooks - the Criterion DVD allows you to choose from four different scores to accompany the film), this was the first time experiencing a silent film the way they were originally conceived in the cinemas. I was in awe of O'Meara - not only for being able to play non-stop for 80 minutes, but to completely react to the various moods and timing of the film. I think I now need to get the DVD, which has a different musical accompaniment - an opera entitled Voices of Light, composed by Richard Einhorn who was inspired by the film. It will be interesting to compare an orchestrated and multi-vocal musical score with the piano that I heard, though I think in some ways, one piano seems more appropiate for the camera's singular focus on mostly one character at a time. This was a wonderful, unique experience and I'm so grateful to Cinematheque for screening this film as it was meant to be seen.

It was back to the theatre this afternoon for a Hollywood treatment of Joan - Otto Preminger's 1957 Saint Joan, starring Jean Seberg in her first movie role, Richard Widmark (who I kept thinking bears an uncanny resemblance to Ed Harris or vice versa), and John Gielgud. This is based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. I've seen it on stage at the Shaw Festival and it's one that I like very much mostly because of the epilogue where all the main characters re-unite as ghosts some years later. It always makes me laugh at the brush-off given to Joan by the men. The screenplay was written by none other than Graham Greene who effectively starts and ends the film with parts of this epilogue. He also gives Gielgud an absurdly ridiculous bit of dialogue (something along the lines of how heaven and hell are like Oxford and Cambridge - they don't mix well) -and Gielgud delivers it so straightfacedly, one can't help but giggle. One doesn't often picture Joan of Arc as a woman with a fetching beauty spot on her cheekbone, but Seberg is so earnest and charming in many of her earlier scenes and so defeatedly haggard and hollow-eyed during her trial, that in the context of Shaw/Greene's character, I think she was a perfect casting choice.
These were two completely different films in tone, focus and technique and yet I very much enjoyed them both. We'll see how Ingrid Bergman fares next week in Victor Fleming's 1948 Joan of Arc. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography - it's in colour - and I'm curious to see how it will differ emotionally and artistically from these two black and white films.
I think I also need to dig out my copy of Marina Warner's book Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, which looks at Joan's constantly changing image over the centuries.

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