A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

May 6, 2009

Close-Up on Joan of Arc: from Jacques Rivette’s “Jeanne de Pucelle” to Carl Dreyer’s “La passion de Jeanne d’Arc”

I am still under the effect of a rather random arrow of time when it comes to watching films. Mainly, this means that, since I am making up on new releases over time (when they are no longer new releases), I am at the mercy of certain momentous interests and fortuitous coincidences as to the time the films I am watching in a particular period were made. Well, sometimes it works for me, and other times not.

I remember many years ago, when I finally got to see the entire “Nixon” directed by Oliver Stone. There’s nothing particularly bad about this film, except that it’s almost a dry historical account of the most important events of his political career, obviously culminating with the famous Watergate scandal. In retrospect, it has a lot of good background information, and very little, if any, fictional element. But this richness in details makes this film good scaffolding if one wants to watch the amazing “Secret Honor” directed by Robert Altman. There is one heck of a close-up on a political character which will be difficult to be ever surpassed.

The two parts Jacques Rivette film “Joan the Maid” / “Jeanne la Pucelle” have this historical quality. We see the re-creation of the fifteenth century of a France at its lowest point during the 100 hundred year war. There’s little humor involved, the director limits himself to watch Joan (Sandrine Bonnaire) going through her adventure of freeing Orleans from the British troops and coronation of her king, then through her prison ordeals culminating with her being executing by burning on a stake for heresy. This is not quite a “period drama”, though. At least, if we are to compare this film to the late Eric Rohmer’s “Astrea and Celadon” , with which it has some similarities in style, we are focusing more on the legend, and in this case the legend is the character Joan, including her frequent contacts with the saints who inspire her in her deeds.

We do not see epic battles. Instead, we get to see a few people fighting here and there, winning some and losing some. Needless to say we don’t get to see any special effects. Everything is so concrete that you begin to wonder where God and the other saints in all that soup are. So yeah, we are mainly seeing the humans. Normal people, including the Dauphin and the haunted Joan, evolve or devolve throughout the film.

We get to see a less known side of Paris (the non French one, back then it belonged to Burgundy, a British ally) and the king’s humiliation, when he admits to have made a pact with Bourgogne. We also get to visit a castle where Joan is detained for a while and we even get a glimpse of the motivation that drives the castle’s seigneur to deliver her to England. Further, we get to witness the trial proceedings, which to me look like a rigged trial against a political dissident carried out in a communist country. We finally see what makes her abjure and then recant her abjuration, which leads her straight to the burning stake, with barely a communion granted at the last minute. Joan is sent to Heaven while the Holy Cross is shown to her from the sides.

Yes, lots of good material here. Well, the natural question comes then: where’s the close-up? The answer regarding the close-up to a film made in the mid 90’s is in a film made in the late 20’s. Or it can be one of the answers, if you like this better. At least, this was what I saw in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” .

Passion, that is, like the narratives of the lives of saints, containing the accounts of the ordeals they have gone through. It is worth mentioning that Joan of Arc, despite being excommunicated for heresy, was eventually beatified in the twentieth century, not long before this film was made. Starting from the records made by hand in the fifteenth century, Dreyer’s film focuses on her trial in Rouen, which is condensed to one day.

If one wonders what the charm of the old and perhaps silent films is, watching “The passion of Joan of Arc” can release much of the mystery, for it is a beautiful example of how emotion was expressed in film in a time when the talkie was nonexistent yet (there are a few late recreations of this fashion for communicating expressions, two titles come to mind: Mel Brooks’ “Silent movie” and Aki Kaurismaki’s “Juha” , both are “technically” silent films). We are given the chance to observe first-hand the emotional expressions of Joan, here played by Marie/Renee Falconetti. No, this time we do not have a pretty girl to watch. Instead, Joan’s face is everyone’s face, when dealing with accusations, schemes and betrayals, verbal abuses and she has little in control over what will happen to her. This is when we see her dressed like a man, with a male haircut, wide wondering eyes, freckles, tears and so on. She knows what she had seen, and remains undeterred by suggestions that she has in fact communicated with Satan. Even at the sight of the instruments of torture, she cannot understand why the heretic is her, and her torturers are in fact people of God. The only shed of light comes from the prison’s window, cross-shaped, which leaves on the floor a distinct shadow of the cross (yes, we can definitely recognize here what Lars von Trier had done with it in his “Epidemic”). But this cross is fading whenever the judges are stepping on it.

The illiterate girl falls into the trap of believing one priest as being the messenger of her king, but on the other hand she does not fall into other theological traps (“are you in a state of grace?”). But instead, she irritates her judges by telling that regardless of God liking or not the English, their fate is to leave France, except the ones who will die. Another sensitive aspect is her male outfit. She is even made to choose between remaining in this outfit (which by now we identify with her personal integrity and pride) and participating to the Catholic mass. A trick into a trick built into another trick.

Long story short, she can’t win. This actually means the fight is too uneven and the outcome has already been decided for her: the English want to make from her an example, so that the French will fear fighting against the English, due to the punishment associated with this. What she can do is choose between her death and her soul’s death. In other words, she can either sign a statement in which she abjures her stated heresies, or she will be excommunicated and executed. She takes the advice of some people in her court and she signs, but also marks a cross on the document, this meaning “I actually didn’t mean that”. Well, formally she has complied with the request, and instead of death, she gets the smaller sentence: life imprisonment and humiliation.

In Rivette’s version, her changing of mind is caused by the harsh treatments in prison, the French filmmaker is even staging a rape attempt. Here, Dreyer hints to an access of remorse when she gets the prisoners’ haircut: she is also stripped of her dignity. Realizing what she has done, she “abjures the previous abjuration” and ends up on the stake which was prepared for her long before that.

In the execution scene, carried out in Rouen, we get to know another character; the crowd. They are definitely aware of Joan’s ordeals, but they simply do not have the power to stop it. They are witnessing her death (beautifully shot), and realize she remained one of them, and the judged killed a saint. A public revolt ensues, but once again the city is ready for this, so the soldiers reply wielding chain maces against them and eventually kick them outside of the city walls.
This is where Joan’s legend will live on, and from where it will return with a vengeance. Now, Joan’s spirit is inseparable from the French popular spirit, and this is what (as we are suggested in the film) will ultimately change the war’s outcome.

This was my second incursion into Dreyer’s films, after viewing Ordet, and from this perspective I am not very competent to lead to the fine details. All can I see is that his films are growing into you, and will leave an indelible mark. Yes, Dreyer’s spirit is living into us, even without us knowing anything about it. This encounter is so rewarding…

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March 3, 2009

The Story of Marie and Julien – A Rivette-ing Romance Beyond Life and Death

If we are to make an inventory of the ghost-like characters in European films, what do we have? The first ones coming to mind are the angels in Wim Wender’s “Himmel uber Berlin”, remade with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan as “City of Angels”, the silent man in Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” and maybe the basketball playing dead friend of Lilja in Lukas Moodyson’s “Lilja 4Ever”. Nothing really helpful in making us understand what happens in a slowly-paced film like almost all Jacques Rivette’s.

So, what is going on here? The film is structured as a shift from Julien toward Marie. The first part, titled “Julien”, starts with their conversation during a dream. Surprise, they actually meet in person shortly after that. And while more than a year ago, the last time when they met, everyone was having another partner, this time it seems they both have the slot available for the other. It’s just that Marie appears to play a little “hard to get”. But Julien is patient: after all, his profession is vintage clock repairing, and this involves a lot of tedious and boring work. An advantage of his line of work might be that he is a perfectionist, and he also senses when something is out of tune.

That way, he soon senses that there’s something weird about Marie. On the screen, we can definitely see something that can be labeled as mental instability, but it could be more. So much more that it is too complicated for Julien to solve.

The gimmick used by the director to nudge Julien toward the solution is the blackmail plot. He had found some compromising materials about a woman, owner of a doll manufacturing business, and agrees to return them for a hefty sum. Since there are three such materials, there will be three transactions. The first one is undertaken by Julien, the next one by Marie. And something happens.

Marie sees someone that shouldn’t exist. It’s the deceased sister of the blackmailed woman. She even sends a letter which somehow arrives to Marie, and the two women communicate. That way, we understand that these two are alike, and this means for us that even Marie is dead. We can even track down the reason why she returned in life after staying in the limbo for a while. The other woman had some unsettled “affairs” with her sister, and apparently Marie was still unfulfilled by her life, and especially her love life, that she responded the dream call from Julien. And now, the impossible is happening: although her deadline is near, she doesn’t want to leave this realm again. The question remains: but what if she doesn’t heed the calls from above? What will happen? Nobody really knows the rules…

I am throwing a bone or two here. In order to better understand this “ghost” story, we must relate it to other important ghost stories. Here are two.

– Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” is a film comprised of a series of ghost stories adapted from a book written by a Westerner, which westerner collected them in Japan. And the first one seems to have part of the key. In this story, a samurai hit by some sort of financial crisis leaves the city to work for a wealthy important figure. Although he loves his beautiful, loving and hard-working wife, he decides he will have higher chances to succeed if he were to marry another woman from his future master’s entourage, in the hopes that he will eventually able to restore his wealth and return to reinstate his old wife. Well, long story short, things don’t go as planned, so he starts thinking more and more about the loving wife he left behind. When he no longer stands his current nagging wife, he leaves his status and returns. He arrives at dusk at his old wife’s house, and during that evening they share memories and plan to restart their life together, full of hope. The samurai’s surprise is immense in the morning when he wakes up, because all he can see is a run-down building, with nothing usable, and after he gets out someone tells him that his wife had actually died some time ago.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari
– This is a story of wartime, when a potter is decided to make it big by selling pots in the market to the soldiers. He earns big, but he also loses big, and he was that close to losing everything. His first encounter with a ghost happens in the market, when a local princess approaches him and asks him to bring her some of the pots she had just handpicked. Upon arrival, he is invited to stay the night, and it turns out that the virgin princess needs a husband. What’s a man to do than accept, in these conditions? Yes, but when he is running some errands in the market, everyone runs from him when they hear where he is staying. Lastly, a priest tells him that his new wife is a ghost and this relationship is forbidden, so he must act toward his deliverance from it. Back “home”, he learns that the princess was actually killed in a family feud and she returned to earth to find true love which she missed in her life, but she had now found in his person. Nevertheless, he leaves (let’s skip his departure’s details).
– In the meantime, his wife is killed by some hungry rogue soldiers wanting her food. When he returns home, upon entering the door he sees the devastated house with nobody inside. He gets out through the back door, returns to the front door and reenters. So (this is a masterfully handled scene) he meets inside his wife who was already worried for him, and his child was sleeping next to her. These facts will be negated early in the morning, when the neighbors arrive and tell him his wife was dead, and obviously she had already vanished.

Now it’s time to go back to the story of Marie and Julien and see what we have. We have indeed a story of love and a story of madness which has pushed Marie to suicide before. She doesn’t want to leave, but somehow she agrees that she doesn’t have any choice. She even shows Julien that she is left unharmed by the sharp knife, the blood doesn’t spill. She warns him that after her departure he will completely forget her. She even leaves shortly after the knife scene, when only Julien bleeds.
It’s actually quite an amazing scene; we are seeing it from both worlds. We see Julien seconds after Marie has vanished; acting as if he had really forgotten Marie, during the phone conversation he clearly exhibits this. We also have the view from Marie’s “window”, looking at Julien and his dog, she is also looking at her dry wound, and suddenly, the blood starts dripping.
Yes, somehow she’s back here, she needs emergency care, and let’s forget about technical ramifications as canceling her death certificate and so on. We are talking here about saving a soul or two, about saving a life, or about a life returning.

Indeed, seeing this film is not about “watching paint dry”, as a Gene Hackman character once said about Eric Rohmer’s film (incidentally, this film was produced by Rohmer’s “Les film du Losange”). Actually it’s about watching red paint dripping again. And it’s magic. Luminous, and having a clockwork precision. Jacques Rivette is a painter (as in La belle Noiseuse), a filmmaker (as in Julie and Celine Go Boating), a theatrical script writer and director (as in Va savoir), but also a clock master, as in Story of Marie and Julien. Gone are the minutes like “Gone in 60 seconds”, such films that take maybe 2 ½ or 3 hours have something to tell.

But if you’re in a hurry, it’s very likely that you’re going to miss it…

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