In praise of the Falconetti and some half-remembered guy

I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc way back in the early nineties and was shaken to my core by this near-mystical performance by the great Falconetti. A silent French film that traces the trial of Joan of Arc, it is a kind of trance-cinema, raw and hypnotic and like nothing you will ever see. I was actually kind of hung-over when I saw it and was at a guy’s house who, to be perfectly honest, didn’t really interest me very much. He didn’t have much to say, if you know what I mean, but he put on his copy of the video of The Passion of Joan Arc and we watched it silently and two things happened simultaneously – firstly, I became a Falconetti disciple for life and secondly, the guy suddenly seemed a little more interesting! If you’ve never seen it, watch it! Here’s some information.

Born in Pantin, Seinne-Saint-Denis, Falconetti became a stage actress in Paris in 1918. Carl Dreyer watched her act in an amateur theatre and selected her as his leading lady in his upcoming production La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, Falconetti was 35 years old when she played the role of 19-year-old Joan of Arc in La Passion. Her portrayal is widely considered one of the most astonishing performances ever committed to film, and it would remain her final cinematic role.

Many writers have claimed that Falconetti's performance was the result of extreme cruelty at the hands of Dreyer, a notoriously demanding director who pushed her to the brink of emotional collapse.

However, in their biography of Dreyer, Jean and Dale Drum say that these stories are based only on rumour. "Dreyer and Falconetti would watch the rushes of a single scene together, seven or eight times, until Dreyer could pick out a little bit, maybe a few feet, where the effect was what they wanted, and when they reshot the scene, she could play it without the least inhibition. Just those few feet of film had inspired her." Later, Falconetti became able to play scenes only from Dreyer's explanations, without the need even for rehearsal.

Cruelty or not, something resonates deeply from this performance and although I can’t really remember the guy’s name who showed me this extraordinary film on that hung-over morning twenty-five years ago, I would like to thank him, anyway. He did good. The Passion of Joan of Arc showed me the way.