For this essay, my professor asked us perform a formal analysis of how Carl Theodor Dreyer uses the ideas of “simplification” and “abstraction” in his film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Vicarious emotion is key to the power of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was committed to the aesthetic of simplified form. From the sympathetic way Joan is portrayed as a protagonist to the priests who serve as her adversaries, it is clear that this mode of display is vital to Dreyer’s vision. For him, the story of Joan of Arc is one of symbolism, representing issues that span religion, class, and national pride, all of which exceed the scope of any one person. Therefore, Dreyer foists the weight of humanity upon his protagonist. As a result, Joan becomes a proxy for the audience. By reducing Joan to her essential traits, the way in which the audience relates to her struggles and motivations becomes more representative than realistic – and, by extension, more personal.
Dreyer felt there was a challenge in effectively conveying emotion in live-action cinema. As a solution, he suggests in his 1955 Sight and Sound article, “Thoughts on My Craft,” that the face can serve as the optimal vehicle for expression:“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
Expressions throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc are not footnotes to the actors’ performances, but instead serve as the primary focus of the story; indeed, the expressions themselves become the performance. This is most evident in how Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan is handled within the mise-en-scène. Her full body is almost never shown unless absolutely necessary. Using close-ups and avoiding medium or long establishing shots, Dreyer effectively gives her the appearance of a disembodied head. Already, this segmentation of the body leads to a markedly different mode of intellectual response from the viewer than a typical normative Hollywood film. Joan is no longer a fully-realized person. She is merely a face: a symbol of pure expression and thought.
In his 1931 essay “Mickey Mouse,” German film and literary theorist Walter Benjamin suggests that there is power behind a director’s decision to compartmentalize the body. He describes compartmentalization as a matter of “property relations”:“Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.”
It can be argued that body manipulation actually predates Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons; going back to early shorts like Fantasmagorie (1908) by Émile Cohl, animated figures were able to sever limbs, heads, and other body parts without any detriment their health. But chronology aside, Benjamin’s thesis nevertheless holds true: compartmentalization affects the viewer’s connection to the characters in the film.
Benjamin uses the cartoon character of Mickey Mouse as an example of how the virtual indestructibility of compartmentalized characters means that they can survive any dangerous endeavor. Benjamin states that this taps into the primal desire of humanity to “survive civilization,” braving the pitfalls and perils of the modern world while maintaining overall health. He went further to conclude that these characters owe their popularity to this survival-based attraction:“So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.”
In Dreyer’s film, Joan is likewise an indestructible figure; though she is not physically immune as Mickey is, as demonstrated by her being burned at the stake in the final moments of the movie, her ideas about free religious thought cannot be destroyed. Therefore, Dreyer uses compartmentalization to represent Joan as the will to “survive civilization,” just as Benjamin outlines. And like Mickey, she retains popular appeal because she has been compartmentalized and is thereby made resilient to the modern world. In the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the modern world is represented by the highly regimented Church heirarchy and doctrine. She remains victorious over the Church’s will by declining their offer of salvation and never confessing to her alleged crimes, and in doing so, gives the audience a way to directly empathize with her survival.
This phenomenon of direct empathy is tied to the ideas of abstractionism, wherein a simple, human-like figure becomes relatable because it is non-specific but still meaningful. Abstractionism finds its roots in iconography. In Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he frames this concept in terms of a sliding scale of Resemblance and Meaning. As an example, he shows a photograph of a man with an apathetic expression. On one end, he suggests that the photographic image retains full Resemblance to the “actual” appearance of the face in question. On the other side, a highly abstracted image retains little semblance to the original visage of the man, but still retains Meaning – in this case, that meaning is the lack of emotion (apathy). Taking this to the extreme, he posits that a completely abstracted face would not be an image at all, but rather words; in the example above, this would be the phrase “apathetic face.” These words look nothing like what they represent, but they still retain the Meaning present in the preceding images. The images and the words are, in a sense, still representative of the same face, despite their visual incongruence.
There is significance to reducing human expression to its core components. A face that resembles no particular person or place can elicit a new sense of relation from the viewer: empathy. In both comic and animation history, artists have used this dynamic to create characters with whom the reader or viewer can more closely relate. Consider the immensely successful Calvin and Hobbes series by Bill Watterson, or the Peanuts comic strip and animated shorts by Charles M. Schulz. For both of these properties, a highly simplified cast of characters is used to evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia. There are few defining visual characteristics to Calvin or Charlie Brown, and so the reader can superimpose their own memories on them. This extends to the world of superheroes, as well. Comic book superheroes almost all wear masks, obscuring their faces. This makes readers feel that an everyman or woman, even the readers themselves, could be behind Batman’s cowl or Spider-Man’s costume. This sort of iconic figuration is key to abstractionism.
In live-action, this effect is lessened significantly. Except in the case of characters that wear masks or obscure make-up on-screen, cinema is almost always photographic in execution. On McCloud’s scale, this would put any protagonist in a live-action movie on the side of high Resemblance and therefore low relatability. Dreyer understands this principle, and this is why he depicts his characters simply as faces that express feeling. He uses the concepts of bodily compartmentalization and abstraction to evade the highly Resemblant nature of live-action to bring the viewer into the film as an emotional participant in Joan’s struggle. He even notes the how a face can be “animated from the inside, turning it into poetry.” He is evidently uninterested in a straightforward, “realistic” presentation of his characters.
As often happens in comic books, faces regularly fill the entire frame in Dreyer’s film. However, unlike the simplified figures one might find in a comic or animated cartoon, Renée Falconetti is a human woman and therefore any image of her is highly Resemblant to a “real” person. Compounding on the problem is the camera that, by its own nature, takes moving photographic images that technologically strive to capture “reality” as we perceive it day-to-day. Dreyer realizes that he must undermine these restrictions to achieve the benefits of abstraction-based empathy.
As aforementioned, Dreyer chooses to depict Joan as a disembodied head for most of the film. There are a few reasons why Dreyer does this, but they all build up to a convergent ideology of empathy. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a rousing, powerful feature that shows an allegiance to Joan’s martyrdom; Joan is clearly meant to be the protagonist because the camera regularly depicts her from a high angle to make her seem vulnerable to the accusations and iron will of the Church and therefore sympathetic to the audience.
Nevertheless, Dreyer understands that overtly announcing his point of view is less effective than enrapturing the audience in his thought process. Falconetti exemplifies this mantra. She rarely offers any discernible expression as Joan. She constantly seems lost in thought, but it is unclear what she is thinking about. She may be talking to God, as she claims. In another reading, her vacant look may hint at insanity; in that light, what she perceives to be the voice of God actually a manifestation of the voices in her mind. Alternatively, she may simply be lost: a young woman who has been thrust into a position of harsh leadership for which she must be held accountable.
Dreyer’s decision to compartmentalize his protagonist also positively serves the narrative. Historically speaking, Joan represents the French people and raw religious spirituality. Therefore, her role as a successful warlord had to be downplayed to garner sympathy from the audience. Dreyer achieves this effect through disembodiment; visually speaking, it is difficult to imagine that the Joan shown on-screen has the facility to lead an army on a countryside massacre because she lacks a real physical presence. These ideas all reflect historical interpretations of Joan’s life. But by not revealing any of these views to be the definitive version of Joan, Dreyer has abstracted the ideas and offered them to the audience. He asks the audience to empathize with Joan, and then decide for themselves. This makes Joan’s struggle an affecting experience that directly involves the viewer. With this in mind, Dreyer’s approach to The Passion of Joan of Arc becomes easier to interpret. In this film, Dreyer reveals Joan to be an ambiguous character. She speaks little, her thoughts are enigmatic, and her appearance is emblematic neither of femininity or masculinity. From the outset, she has already been abstracted on an aesthetic level.
It is crucial to recognize that although Joan is usually only shot from the neck or shoulders up, her full body is on display at key points in the first and final scenes in the movie. In the opening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Joan’s body is shown in order to visually indicate that she is in chains and is being held prisoner by the Church. In the final scenes of the film, Joan’s full body is again shown briefly as a shadow in the flames as the Church burns her for her supposed crimes. In both of these instances, the figuration of Joan’s body is still abstracted. In the former, Joan’s shoulders, legs, and face are all shown separately, uncannily segmenting the human figure. In the latter, Joan’s body is shrouded in fire; her face is indistinguishable, and only the loose outlines of her arms, legs, and torso are visible. These moments set the tone of the narrative. Dreyer intentionally gives the audience an empathetic entry point by carefully keeping resemblance to a minimum. He thereby creates a mode through which the audience can see themselves in chains or on the stake. This offers them a sense of agency in Joan’s initial confinement, as well as in her ultimate demise.
Abstraction via compartmentalization can, conversely, be used to dehumanize the subject. Many of the Church clergy who stand in accusation of Joan are depicted similarly to Joan’s character. They are often shown from the neck or shoulders up, separating them from their bodies. They are importantly viewed from a low angle, imbuing them with a sense of direct imposition and power. In those scenes, Dreyer’s technique for handling them resembles how he handles Joan. However, Dreyer differentiates Joan from the priests by taking his theme of compartmentalization to an extreme. This ultimately negates any feeling of sympathy for her adversaries.
In one overtly abstract scene, Joan declares that the clergy are servants of the Devil. In response, the clergy almost spit on her as they retort in anger. In particular, one of these priests is shown in both a close-up on his whole face, and then in an extreme close-up on his lips as he yells at Joan. Interspersed with these moments are shots of Joan, her face indicating that she is vulnerable and frightened of their words and absolute control over her fate. Here, Dreyer uses abstraction to achieve an opposite effect of sympathy. While Joan is presented as a face, thereby retaining the Meaning of her expressed emotion, the priest is simply a pair of lips and is no longer semblant to the human form. In other words, her face demonstrates empathy because it has not been totally asbtracted past the point of basic Resemblance. The priest, however, has lost his humanity; Dreyer depicts him as a dripping, salivating mouth which, juxtaposed with Joan’s innocence, gives the impression of basic animal instinct. Given the film’s religious context, this instinct could take the form of the sins of lust, gluttony, and even rumormongering, evil ideas which contrast with Joan’s relative innocence. Through Dreyer’s cinematographic choices, Joan appears more human and less monstrous (or Devilish) than her captors.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered a masterpiece of the avant-garde because it challenges the conventions of live-action cinema. It asks the audience see the story through the eyes of a peasant girl who believes she is on a mission from God. Carl Theodor Dreyer manipulates the resemblance of facial expression to the point where his protagonist, Joan, can serve as a proxy for the viewer. Abstracting the historical character of Joan of Arc to her fundamental symbolic meaning allows the tragic proceedings of Joan’s trial to impact not only the character, but also on the audience vicariously experiencing her strife. Through his vision of Joan, Dreyer successful humanizes the intangible ideas of French pride, spirituality, and freedom.