Béla Balázs & The Passion of Joan of Arc

I have seen no other film that insists so thorougly on the power of the close-up as effectively as The Passion of Joan of Arc. At risk of sounding slightly off-key, this film plays out for me as a visual sort of music – it may be “silent” to our eyes, but there’s intense rhythms formed by the pacing, and somehow even a kind of visual melody produced via Dreyer’s series of close-ups. (For just one example, Joan always looks like she’s singing her lines, and not speaking them – at times as though she’s waiting for the music to build to the proper pitch before singing).

As for others of the early film theorists we’ve been studying, the close-up is a primary source of the power of silent cinema for Balázs, yet his appreciation of it accomplishes in tying its power directly to one of the most powerful driving forces in my own life – music. Balázs suggests that, previous to the advent of the close-up, we were unable to truly see our lives for what they were, as “a concert-goer ignorant of music listens to an orchestra playing a symphony. All he hears is the leading melody, all the rest is blurred into a general murmur,” (274). Later on, Balázs contrasts our knowledge of a full body present outside of the frame of a close-up of a hand with the notion that a melody is in itself a complete sequence of notes “already in existence as a complete entity as soon as the first note is played,” (276). With this in mind, it seems that the close-up is the ultimate high-note for Balázs, and The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of all of cinema’s most beautiful songs.

Much of the film is, for me, about one individual’s personal relationship with God, and by separating Joan into a frame-space entirely her own (we rarely see her in the same shot as anyone else’s face, if at all), Dreyer manages to create this relationship visually. Balázs claims that via mute segments of silent cinema, “we saw conversations between the facial expressions of two human beings who understood the movements of each others’ faces better than each others’ words and could perceive shades of meaning too subtle to be conveyed in words,” (279), and while Joan stares upwards, wide-eyed and listening, we can see the conversation that no-one but Joan is capable of hearing. Were The Passion of Joan of Arc made in any other way, it’s doubtful Dreyer would have managed accomplishing this. While I can’t hear anything, or whether or not I follow the same belief system, I can actually believe that God and Joan are actively conversing given the searing intensity of these close-ups.

Profiling a woman elevated to sainthood, it’s fitting that we get to know her via the close-up method, the previously mentioned “soul of the cinema” (Epstein). Through these repeated, almost uncomfortable close examinations of her face, we eventually see straight into her. If the eyes are the window to the soul, and the close-up is the soul of the cinema, Dreyer’s sure filling that frame up with a lot of soul. Shot any differently, The Passion of Joan of Arc would most likely be just another good historical document from the dawn of cinema, more remembered by folks forced to watch it while growing up in the Catholic school system than celebrated as such an important leap forward in the art of filmmaking.

(I find it fitting to also consider that we’re watching The Passion of Joan of Arc in a Calgary film theory class in 2009. It would be an entirely different experience watching this film in 1920s Catholic France. Given the rapturous response this film gets from us as film students, I can only imagine the impact it would have had on a group of French believers in the days of early cinema).

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