Tuesday, 20 September 2016

For pity's sake… The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Globe Theatre, Utley and Gregory Ensemble

Cinema under the stars, as a gig, as a “play” watched from the groundling point of view in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre: you can watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece in silence at home and be affected but here the emotional content was flavoured with new atmosphere. I am drained, strangely enriched and I really hate what the English did to Joan.

A few months back the Globe musicians had played on to silent Shakespeare at the BFI and tonight’s screening on the Globe stage was something of a return match. Purists all round were at risk of being offended: cinema on this stage, amplified music and a film whose director asked to be watched in silence accompanied not just by music grounded in rock and trip hop but by non-specialists.

Utley, Gregory and Hazelwood at the Globe
For me it works sublimely well – I left my socks on the floor of the Globe. This is now the third time I’ve seen the Utley and Gregory Joan, first at the Royal Festival Hall and second at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Alexandra Palace where it happily rubbed shoulders with Portishead (Adrian’s day job), Swans, Nick Cave, Alan Moore and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Canadian “post-rock” ensemble whose massed guitar and violin meditations remind me of sections of tonight’s score.

Utley and Gregory deploy a broader sonic template than GYBE with not just those guitars but a brass section, synthesisers and, crucially, the Monteverdi Choir – ably marshalled by Charles Hazelwood, the drinking woman’s Gareth Malone (I should imagine…).  The sound was perfectly balanced and those voices soared up through the Globe’s open-top unerringly following Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s heaven-ward gaze.

Antonin Artaud and Renée Jeanne Falconetti (aka Renée Maria Falconetti)
It’s interesting that Dreyer was invited to make a film by the Société Générale des Films and chose Joan just as Gance had chosen Napoleon just before: nationalism was on the rise in the turbulent inter-war years and yet, whilst both films examine the philosophical construction and definition of France, Dreyer was more interested in the theological issues centred on this most remarkable teenager from Domrémy.

Since I last saw this film I have been to both Rouen where Joan was tried and burned and to Orleans, the scene of her greatest victory and where you can still walk around a house she stayed in… Almost 600 years after her death, Joan exerts a huge pull on the imagination: how could someone from such humble beginnings play such a role in history: how could her words, as reproduced in the film from transcripts of her trial, be so poised?

Acute angles and no make-up to accentuate Joan's fears
Even allowing for inevitable historical and contemporary distortion, the text shows Joan to have incredible native intelligence. The film is based on a true “story” but actually takes great care only focusing on known facts and the words as transcribed. Carl Theodor Dreyer spent long months studying Joan and those transcripts ending up with a deceptively minimalist story that packs one of the mightiest punches in cinematic history.

Rudolph Maté’s camera sweeps around the court room focusing on faces from acute angles showing snatches of emotion from the conflicted priests trying Joan for heresy. Silent film rarely had faces as fascinating as this bunch as Dreyer cast for grotesque reality with no make-up allowed to distract from the unforgiving lens nor the gaze of an audience passing their own judgement on these traitors of France and their own faith.

But the camera always looks straight on at Falconetti who is beyond mesmerising but not our sympathy: you cannot watch a human being undergo such raw emotion without wanting to cry yourself… Here is a young woman in a rapture of innocent belief and, as fellow cinemutophile Amanda R pointed out, this could be a very contemporary story: someone condemned for the inconvenience of their faith.

Joan of Arc was always intended to lose the trial and the English and their Burgundian allies fixed the process to ensure her defeat and yet she still emerges in triumph as a martyr rewarded with death’s release and inspiring her countrymen to continue their fight.

By focusing on the minutiae Dreyer humanises this history in a way that few others ever match: we are inside Joan’s desperation, her tear-filled eyes darting from face to face hoping for something more than a false friend but never losing her trust in divine support.

In the end she does affect those around her, chiefly Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen (Antonin Artaud) and maybe even Canon Nicolas Loyseleur (Maurice Schutz) who tries to trick her into believing her royal protector, Charles VII, wants her to accept guilt. Both actors are superb but no one stands against Falconetti’s endless well of open despair and her uncanny ability to express depth of belief in the face of fear and humiliation.

The images and tone are simple and consistently powerful and yet all could be unbalanced by the two dozen musicians on stage. But even the squalling of Portishead-ian guitar cannot overwhelm Dreyer’s passion and Mr Hazelwood kept excellent order throughout.

As the last notes of the choir escaped into the metropolitan sky the audience paused just that little bit too long before enthusiastic applause broke out around the Globe: we were all a little stunned, heads full of images and sounds that will stay with us for days. Hold onto what you believe and please… be kind. Be true.

No comments:

Post a Comment