This is a story about three miracles and three objects. Objects are symbols moving through time. "Miracles are expressions of love and all expressions of love are maximal."
St. Joan of Arc is a martyr of France and the Catholic Church. She was illiterate and uneducated. At a young age she had visions from God which lead France to victory in the Hundred Years’ War. She travelled with the army dressed in a men’s uniform with donated armor. She carried a banner instead of a sword. She was captured by the English, tried illegally and convicted of heresy in 1431.
She was 19 when she burned at the stake. Her choice was twofold: recant her testimony and unify with the Church, or die. Under pressure at her trial, Joan did it—she took it all back, and who can blame her? The call to save your homeland seems daunting enough. Four days later Joan returned to her truth. She said her false confession was for fear of the fire that would engulf her. She said, “One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are, and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” I’d like to know the conversation she had in her head when she decided to die rather than live a liar. What did she tell herself?
Joan is the patron saint of captives. I think that includes captives of ourselves. She was a captive of herself too, as she held onto her understandable desire to live. Instead, she surrendered everything and said It. A commission of inquiry described her as being “of irreproachable life, a good Christian, possessed of the virtues of humility, honesty and simplicity.” Helluva a gal. How did she do that?
She has remained a figure of sanctity and controversy as the most prolific figure of the medieval period. I’m only beginning to understand my gravitation towards her and what her I can take from her life into mine. What I notice about her is that she was able to escape death by freeing herself. I don't know what this means.
My obsession began after seeing a film telling her life. It began a journey and a collection that keeps going.
The silent film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, directed by Dreyer, was released in France four years after St. Joan’s canonization. The film is historically accurate, based on the existing transcriptions of the trial, yet arranged as if the proceedings happened in an hour and a half. Lead actress Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan was heralded as one of the finest on film. “I don’t know what it was that I saw in her face, but I felt I couldn’t find a better one anywhere. She didn’t act for me; she just used her own face,” said Dreyer.
The set was enormous and expensive, yet director Dreyer rejected establishing shots, save three. Of the film’s 1500 cuts, fewer than 15 constitute a continuous match on action. The film has been described as feeling more like a documentary than a drama. I first saw it in 2011 and began a quest to curl up inside it and know everything about Joan, Dreyer and Falconetti.
The battle for this film to exist has occurred at every level of production, release and archival. After censorship, being lost in fire after fire, it still survived in it’s own corner waiting to be seen. It's miraculous that we get to see it.
OBJECT ONE: JESUS, BY CARL TH. DREYER
I began at the end of Dreyer’s work. His last manuscript, Jesus was a long-term dream for him, and unaccomplished at the time of his death in March 1968. Three essays in the book explain his aims on the subject and story of Jesus. He made films in Europe during wars and was particularly affected by the anti-Semitism of WWII. Asked about his intent for Jesus, he said, “I think it will aid in lessening the antagonism between Christian and Jew. For this reason, among others, I know that I want to let Jesus be shown as a Jew. The masses have a deeply rooted conception that Jesus was blond and Aryan. It is a good turn I think, to see to it that this prejudice is stamped out.”
He did like Jesus—he aimed to unify what was separate. It was story about Jesus’ life, not his death. Dreyer said that film was his one great passion. I don’t know my one great passion. I don’t know that’ll I’ll ever choose. I share his aspiration for peace, for closeness of what is only perceived as separate. I should be so lucky to have a project like that to leave behind when I die.
Object Two: Falconetti by Helene Falconetti
The most interesting, and coveted character in this journey is Renée Jeanne Falconetti. She was a French theatre actress born in 1892. Jeanne was Falconetti’s only film role. Her portrayal of Joan is stunning and singular. She was committed to the role in the most beautiful and heartbreaking way. She famously shaves her head in the film, coaxed by Dreyer with an “appealed to her as an artist.” A few days before the cut, her doubts crept in. The day of the scene everyone was sent away and she sat in the chair. “I felt as if I had been condemned to death. I felt as if I were about to be executed. I didn’t need to play that scene; I could just be myself,” Falconetti said.
Almost nothing about her exists. She is found in clips and pictures here and there but much of her life is lost. She went to Argentina with her child. After her benefactor died, she gave elocution lessons to manage. There is evidence she experienced mental illness. She killed herself in 1946.
She said that film sets made her tired. They took a lot out of her—they take a lot out of me too. I felt a kinship between her and viewed her as a mentor from the past. I felt like we were the same type of crazy. The kind that creeps up and sinks you while you don’t even notice. I wanted to know the secret error and living artistry of her life. I wanted to discover her life and to live for both of us. I wanted to have her over for tea and talk about what makes us feel love. I want to not go crazy and die myself.
I found a rare biography written by her daughter. It’s in French, but I was sure there was an answer in there. I watched the price fluctuate online. My friend Kick works at a used bookstore, and had mutually joined the obsession of the film. He was following the status of the book and notified me that the few copies of it online had disappeared. The nearest copy to me was 800 miles away in an Illinois library.
A few weeks later one copy appeared for sale. I bought it without regard for my nutritional needs for 52$. It is full of pictures I’ve never seen of her. Someday I’ll translate the whole book, simultaneously learning French. I'll go to Montmartre to set flowers on her grave. I'll give up wanting her secret.
Object III: The Passion of Joanie of Arc
Child's play + La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc = The Passion of Joanie of Arc
The culmination of these experiences and objects led to creating a short film. When a friend asked me if I ever engaged in play, I knew that I didn’t. I felt resistance to my inner child lurch in my stomach. He was on to something.
I’ve started sitting on the floor more. I go to the park to swing. I sing or skip around at work. I bought a coloring book. My approach began to change from rigidity to a do-anyway ethos. The idea of remaking Jeanne aims at the perfection of the film by imitating it, and accepting imperfection—serious and silly. It was terrifying and necessary to complete. Also Kick and I needed haircuts.
The piece was performed mimicking several elements of the original film. Like Dreyer, I simplified and cut up the story and script to meet a shorter timeframe. It avoids establishing shots with lots of close-ups. We it is subtitled in English as we spoke (shitty) French. No makeup. We shot in one day with a small crew due to the extreme tonsure haircut I gave Kick. We used cardboard for our set and spray-painted it pink, just as they did for Jeanne. I tried to make this piece like Joan made her life, with humility, honesty and simplicity. I tried to make it like a child. I’ve been trying to make everything like a child, a nod to the earnestness of first tries with the hopes of having a second.