Friday, February 11, 2011

La Pucelle - History and Movie Review

If you read Henry VI part 1 and you're anything like me, you might have been slightly annoyed at Shakespeare's treatment of Joan of Arc. She's inspiring and disarming (literally) when we first meet her, but by the end of the play, Shakespeare has turned her into a medieval Sabrina the Teenage Witch - complete with a lively interest in boys and a slightly undependable spell-making ability.

Now, we can see why Shakespeare would write it this way - the English are the good guys in his play, and it would hardly do for him to add a plot point in which a French saint was led by holy visions to massacre them. But is there much truth in Shakespeare's portrayal of her? Well, I did a little research, and as much as I like Shakespeare, the general conclusion seems to be no, probably not. As far as can be told, in reality she seems to have been a brave and clever peasant girl who sincerely believed in her visions and in French independence, not in witchcraft and dalliances with French royalty.

Of course, I suspect Shakespeare would not have been particularly upset about his departure from the historical record here (like many of his historical characters, she is there to fulfill a specific role in his story, not to educate us about the true personalities of famous people).

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien Lepage (click to see a larger version of this amazing painting).

If you're looking for a dramatic portrayal of Joan that is in complete contrast with Shakespeare's propagandistic version, and you by some mischance have insufficient leisure to read Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans in the original German, may I suggest the 1928 Danish film The Passion of Joan of Arc? It's even available on youtube.
This is an extraordinary silent film, directed by Carl Th. Dreyer. It covers the events leading up to Joan's death and focuses on the ecclesiastical trial - the script was made from actual excerpts - and religious complicity in her death (unlike Shakespeare's political emphasis). Although difficult to watch, it's one of the greatest films I've seen.

The actress Maria Falconetti as Joan. None of the cast in this production wore makeup.

The film almost didn't make it until the present day. Shortly after it was released, it was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Another cut prepared by the director from outtakes was destroyed in another fire! A few incomplete versions circulated for years. Finally, in 1981, a complete cut was found in a mental institution in Norway and was restored.

Part of what is most notable about the film is the use of the low angle face shot. Dreyer used it extensively for inquisitorial scenes that capture the businesslike horror of medieval "canon law." 

Special mention goes to the score, written by Richard Einhorn and performed by Anonymous 4 (I fell in love with this recording, which was released as a CD, before I ever saw the movie).

Now, I feel I could go on and on about how amazing this film is, but I've already taken on a lot in writing about it at all - how do you "review" a movie like Casablanca or The Seventh Seal? These are the guys that make the rules! And to me, this film is in a similar category, except very old, sad, European and silent (read: slow, for those of you that only like the action-packed!).

I'll just say that to me, this movie is a reminder of a historical fact: even when it seemed that all of the European supposed "Christians" were unified, there were those - persecuted, silenced and burned - whose beliefs were different. And ours too is a world where people are still persecuted and even killed because of religious differences or 'thought crimes.' Those who decry the multiple denominations and political factions in free societies and long for religious or political unity at any price, take note of the alternative.


  1. We don't seem to have much dependable information about what Joan was actually like, but her story -her actions, her words at her trial- elicit deeply felt responses in art and music from us.

  2. A lot has certainly been said and written about Joan of Arc and Shakespeare's version is hardly a true-to-life portrait but then that's not the point. Joan is a great character in HVI:1. Like you I first reacted to the contradictions in her character, which is why I chose that for the subject of my first analysis of this play. It's now on my blog Shakespeare Calling and the title is She's All That.