June Butler checks out a live presentation and world premiere of a new soundtrack for the 1928 Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc, featuring Matthew Nolan, Seán Mac Erlaine, Sharon Phelan, Thomas Haugh.

On a rainy night in Dublin, September 2023, crowds gathered at Sandford Church in Ranelagh to witness the screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc. In a world premiere of the live soundtrack accompanying the film, musicians Matthew Nolan (electric guitar/synths/electronics), Seán Mac Erlaine (flute/electronics/ percussion), Sharon Phelan (vocals/field recordings), and Thomas Haugh (synths/percussion), as well as singers from the Sandford and St Philip’s Choral Union, elevated a new meaning to the most wondrous, sublime music you will ever hear. The chords were so perfectly aligned to the film, it was impossible to say where one stopped and the other began.   

Filmed in 1928 and considered to be one of the finest examples of cinema ever made, Dreyer’s requiem to Joan of Arc, a religious acolyte, fearless and saintly figure, was held up as a benchmark to excellence by those who first viewed the piece. Nearly a century later, the film has inarguably stood the test of time and is still hailed as an artwork of exemplary standing. 

Born on February 3rd, 1889, Carol Theodor Dreyer was a Danish filmmaker, journalist, theatre critic and scriptwriter recognized for his dedication to highlighting social oppression and the tyranny of injustice, bitterly opposed to prejudice and persecution. He was a man known for a staunchly defiant moral stance in upholding the rights of those whose uneducated and poverty stricken voices were often lost in the cacophonous melee of louder, wealthier tones. In his lifetime, Dreyer directed several filmic masterpieces, but The Passion of Joan of Arc has stood up to the test of time and is used as an example of cinematic brilliance for its utilisation of extreme close-ups in the mirroring of human emotion.   

In the tiny village of Domremy la-Pucelle, France, Joan of Arc was born in 1412. ‘Arc’ referred to the region and ‘la-Pucelle’ meaning ‘Maid’ or ‘Maiden’, was added to the village name in the early twentieth century after Joan’s canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. As of 2021, the population of Domremy la-Pucelle hovers around 150. Joan was, like many of her time, unable to read or write but she possessed an unwavering belief in the divine and total faith in her calling which was to rid France of its English usurpers. 

Around mid-1337, King Philip VI of France, attempted to reclaim the region of Guyenne (situated in the southwestern area), from King Edward III, who maintained sovereign rights over the French throne. This led to a series of major and minor wars, dubbed The Hundred Years War. Initially, while neither the English nor the French conceded their apparent title over Guyenne, by staking a claim over the area, the English could have gained a tactical stronghold centrally located in a region that would have caused some serious strategic headaches for the French. For the duration of the war, four kings reigned in England and four in France. When Charles the VI of France (unkindly nicknamed ‘The Mad’), died in 1422, his son, the Dauphin of France, later to become Charles VII, was unable to immediately take the French throne until later in his reign. 

From 1428 at the age of 16, Joan of Arc led the French into battle – successfully routing the English army who had far greater and more experienced military leaders at the helm. 1429 witnessed Joan attacking Orleans and repelling the English from the city which had been under siege from October 1428. Such was her success and given her tender years, it was rumoured that Joan held dominion over satanic powers. There simply could be no other explanation for her numerous military victories. While The Hundred Years War rumbled on until 1453, Joan’s actions turned the tide in favour of the French. 

On May 23rd, 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English for a substantial bounty. In 1431, she was tried as a heretic, manipulated into renouncing her faith and burned at the stake. 

Dreyer was invited to make a film set in France by Societe Generale des Films and given the level of increased interest in Joan after her canonization in 1920, settled upon dramatizing the trial and subsequent killing of Joan by a tribunal of ecclesiastical judges. He spent over a year studying the prosecution transcripts before writing the script and committing the drama to celluloid. The luminously fragile Renee Jeanne Falconetti was chosen to play the part of Joan – an astute and apt decision when witnessing Falconetti’s immersive approach and utter commitment to the role. Other characters included those who presided over the trial as judges, most prominently Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (Eugene Silvain). Jean Lemaitre (Gilbert Dalleu), and Jean Massieu, Dean of Rouen (Antonin Artaud), both served as ecclesiastical authorities, secretaries, and notaries. In a time where most people were illiterate, having witnesses documenting the proceedings was necessary so that continuing and absolute ‘proof’ of Joan’s perfidy could be provided. Worth taking note of, is Camille Bardou’s role as Lord Warwick, an English captain who is present at the trial. Warwick appears to have very little to do other than to form part of a sliding row of witnesses – significantly, he appears to be wearing a metal ‘Brodie’ helmet, worn by English soldiers during World War I. Given Dreyer’s attention to detail, it is likely that using this prop to draw attention to The Great War and the only English trial attendee, was no accident. While Dreyer was not a pacifist, he was deeply concerned with upholding the freedom to express political beliefs and abuse of power in suppressing those same convictions.  

Styled after medieval architecture and shot on an enormous concrete set, the intention was to characterize the tone of Rouen prison in all its bleakness. The film uses a tableau mise-en-scène, following a staccato-type line between left/right shots, briefly showing images of Joan’s interlocutors versus Joan herself. As the questions mount, and accusations fly, there are close-ups of Joan seen rapidly twisting and turning in corporeal agony as she counters an interrogation from which it is impossible to escape. Regardless of how Joan responds, it soon becomes clear no answer will set her free from torment. Her inquisitors launch rapid fire arguments, sometimes decreasing in tone to oily platitudes, suggestive smirks, and false expressions of understanding Joan’s anguish. They cast knowing glances back and forth – culminating in rage-filled threats and exhortations. As Bishop Pierre Cauchon’s anger pivots to a noisy, shrieking climax, flecks of spittle appear from his mouth and land on Joan’s face. Her humiliation is complete.

In 1429, King Charles VII (who by then had regained the throne), wrote to Joan citing unfailing gratitude to her in saving France from the avaricious grip of the English. The knowledge that Charles had already elevated Joan to such a rank of recognition, gave continued legitimacy to a false letter created by the judges during the trial of 1431, purporting to be from Charles VII. In the message, Joan was urged to trust the bearers and lend allegiance to their utterances. Whether she was aware of the forged nature of the letter or not, nonetheless, Joan gave the missive no credence. She is then brought to a chamber in the prison and upon witnessing the implements of torture, Joan faints. She is brought to her senses and carried to a chair. Two turnkeys enter the room and ‘crown’ Joan with a diadem of wrought iron while simultaneously mocking and jeering at her predicament. Later, Joan is brought a lengthy confession written in Latin (a language used only by the Church, jurists, scholars, and philosophers), while a clergyman places a quill into her hand, wraps his own around it and guides Joan’s hand into writing her name on the document. Latin was considered a sacred language, not spoken by ordinary French people, and certainly, Joan would have neither been able to read the writings much less understand them. Such paucity of fairness was commonplace in a time when the Catholic Church in those parts, reigned supreme. When realising she has abnegated her beliefs, Joan immediately withdraws her confession. In doing so, she seals her fate and is decreed a heretic – the punishment for which is to be publicly burned at the stake. 

Dreyer was meticulous in his approach to filming – of note, is Dreyer’s use of close-ups to portray emotions. Harsh lighting was employed to ensure facial expressions were the focal point. Lit from below, Joan’s trial judges looked down on her as they bellowed with barely controlled fury. Much like gargoyles on the roofline of churches, who leered over the populace from a height, the impact of such illumination was intended to strike fear into unbelievers. By contrast, Joan was highlighted from behind to suggest a halo of beatification. Her face glows with inner calm when considering a heavenly existence. 

Sinistral is a Latin term relating to ‘left’ or ‘on the left side’. However, the word in some cultures lends itself to negative connotations, such as evil, harmful, unlucky, or dishonest. A historical bias exists where left-handed people have often been considered abnormal or inferior – certainly the shorter derivation of the word, Sinister, is used in common parlance to mean ominous or forbidding. When Joan is on screen, faced with damnation, she looks down and to the left (sinistral). As she becomes imbued with a sense of religious fervour, she gazes up and towards the right (dextral). 

In 1927, Yasujiro Ozu, the great Japanese director and one of the first ‘auteurs’ of cinema, filmed Sword of Penitence. In these early offerings, Ozu started to use what became known as ‘tatami shots’. Such angles became his visual signature and rose to prominence in Ozu’s later movies. These were low-angle camera shots, pointed at the actor, positioned at the eye level of a person sitting on a tatami mat, a Japanese flooring material. It is possible that Dreyer saw Ozu’s film and as homage to Ozu, ‘appropriated’ this same technique. 

When asked, musician Matthew Nolan labelled the soundtrack ‘Gothic Folk’ – in his opinion, the style best aligned to the piece. As the story unfolds, step by step, Nolan/Mac Erlaine/Phelan and Haugh, bring their collaborative expertise to the fore. The group have played together prior to this performance, and it shows. The notes swoop and soar – vaulted to the heights, propelled, entwined, tumbling, and spinning to the depths. Moments of lyrical tension ebb and flow in perfect tandem with the narrative. Filaments of audial beauty are held in check and then released. 

The accompanying music is a truly fitting ode to The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the performance by Nolan et al, a masterful tribute to what is one of the greatest films ever made.  

The Passion of Joan of Arc – Film & live musical performance took place at Sandford Parish Church on 15th September 2023.


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