Face to Face

I’ve wanted to write something about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1924) since I saw it recently, but struggled to articulate anything that hasn’t been said many times over. Regrettably I watched the film online but the quality was bearable enough for me to find the film absolutely, devastatingly affecting, quite unlike any cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. I don’t know what this says about me and the films I’ve been watching, or indeed the current state of cinema, but Dreyer’s film seemed to be operating on a completely different register. As I say, there have been many things written about the film and it is justifiably considered a landmark of cinema – so much so that I feel slightly embarrassed that I am only now getting around to watching it (streaming a secondary copy at that). Its legendary status is underlined by a troubled story, with the first two cuts having been lost to fire and a long lost version only having been found in an asylum cupboard in the 1980s. It’s strange, too, that my way to the film had come by a slightly roundabout route. I had, the night before, watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, another fascinating film which I could talk more about, during which a fragment of Dreyer’s film makes a brief appearance. Joan is shown recanting her earlier confession as Godard’s lead, Nana (Anna Karina), watches her in the cinema. Nana’s eyes and oddly desperate, ‘open’ gaze are edited to switch back and forth with Joan’s, half-matching the tearful, exhausted face of the young girl now inescapably condemned to death. Nana’s eyes, framed by the dark background and hair that Joan is now missing, begin to stream. It is as if Nana’s gaze is taken over by Dreyer’s sequence, as beads of liquid bubble on the faces of both figures. This scene of affection is also a scene of becoming, where there is no sure direction to the conveyance between faces, surfaces, narratives, etc., nor an indication as to which ‘distribution’ of expressive points holds sway as the lead ‘affector’. Godard uses Dreyer’s scene to present a back and forth movement from no privileged perspective, making the affectivity of the each face, and all it withholds, indiscernible. The identification between shared plights, or the sense of a descent into helplessness, as if events cannot possibly be any other way, is transferred too, simply by means of bringing together the bareness of faces, but the exchange between Nana and Joan is not based in the subject, or in the particularities of their characters situation. It is more a diagrammatical configuration of the transfer of affect from one ‘image stream’ to another. In a short essay on the film written in the 1960s, Susan Sontag describes Vivre sa Vie as an “exhibit, a demonstration,” or a work oriented toward proof rather than analysis. Godard is concerned only with saying that something is, rather than providing an exposition as to why it is. It is in this spirit that the cinema scene seems most interesting, not giving any precise explanation as to why this exchange of gazes is happening but simply showing its ‘passage’. There are other similarities between Godard’s film and The Passion of Joan of Arc, not least being the way in which the shots have dissociated and often follow one another without any continuity of framing, or any carrying over of visual motifs.

One of the defining aspects of Dreyer’s film is that it is almost presented as a sequence of discrete images, with very few links or echoes that bleed from one shot to another. There are simply sequences of disconnected images, like a series of set pieces, that build up a cumulative, ‘overall’ tone, as it were, that carries its own materiality through a combination of privation and rhythm. Both Joan and Nana are ‘photographed’ at wildly different angles within a few moments of each other – a fact that is made quite explicit by Godard in the film’s opening credits, as Sontag points out. Considered in contrast to more conventional techniques, it could be said that the way the shots move around and occupy vastly very different perspectives, it were as if there were countless versions of these events that could have been reconstructed by the film, as if there were innumerable cameras – B-Rolls, C-Rolls, etc. –  running concurrently that might grant an alternative structure to events. With no stable, or predicatable viewpoint, the viewer is disoriented and the film’s ‘identity’, its tone, begins to emerge as one that is carried by something other than a consistency of style, something other than the consistency of a director’s vision… it builds toward a far more poignant and powerful coherence of disjunction. For some reason I also reminded of how Jacques Rancière describes the way that Godard, in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, by extracting images from the history of cinema and reinserting them into his multilayered montage, allows them to become ‘icons’. We might ask where Dreyer’s iconic images, shown as discrete flashes, are extracted from – some kind of absent, virtual continuity of his own film? Are they pulled like singular threads, each with a crystalline uniqueness, from the accounts of Joan’s trial?

Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the actress who portrays Joan, is absolutely extraordinary throughout. I cannot remember a performance being quite so captivating, nor so strange. In fact, the ‘strangeness’ of the film is something that I cannot express clearly besides, that is, all the things about it that make it superficially unusual: the fact that it is a silent film; the presence of text inserts; the slightly washed-out look to the print; the odd angles and severe framing, the insistence of close-ups, etc. There are other, lesser aspects that contribute to the film being powerful in some ways, such as the peculiarly melodramatic aesthetic of many silent films, or the manner in which speed of movement can become mechanised, manipulated and unnatural, even if only by the smallest degree. For me, all these elements can often contribute to the film ‘holding’ an uncanny air, as if it were a structure always at risk from an embedded doubt, a feeling that something isn’t quite right. Yet this distancing, disorienting atmosphere is underlined in Dreyer’s film, alongside the narrative, to devastating effect. The fragmentation of the film, the relentless close-ups, means that there is little sense of scale. As the camera flits and zooms around, capturing scenes in near-isolated stills, it seems as though the viewer is freewheeling with it, moving around the figures, able to inhabit, block or reroute the trajectories of their gazes or their points of view. The viewer’s instability emphasises an impossibility of relations, a dislocation and detachment that is, ironically enough, emphasised most strongly on the face. There is little to identify with the characters because we are often too close to them. For the most part, the film is played out on the surface of Falconetti’s face and it becomes the site of all the evidenced transformations and devastations, making it such a powerful surface that I’m still trying to think about in terms of its where it allows us to go. If the face doesn’t allow us to ‘identify’ with Joan, does it allow us to do something else, such as witness her ‘disappearance’?

In their writing on ‘faciality’, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (who mention The Passion of Joan of Arc in various places) suggest that a tic is a faciality trait trying to escape, then perhaps every one of Falconetti’s expressions assumes the potency of a tic, as if the distribution of her features – the way they are lit, shot, framed, inter-cut, etc. – could somehow lift off from the surface of the face, moving to escape, an irresistible movement toward an inexpressible expression. For this is what Falconetti’s Joan is heading toward, what she is becoming, or even in some strange way what her face contains: something of the impossible. For me the face achieves some kind of blankness – not in the sense of being devoid of content, but assuming a distributive interface with its content that it cannot be described according to existing systems of description. It is as if the film begins to show something of the “dismantling of the face” that Deleze and Guattari see as the destiny of the human – in other words the dismantling of pre-established organisation in an unmotivated search for the new. Deleuze and Guattari base their account of ‘faciality’ in a white wall/black hole system, where the face is a surface of intersection that removes the head from the stratum of organisation through ‘overcoding’, allowing traits of faciality to emanate through the body like a map. They write that “dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity,” (Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004) (trans. Massumi, B.) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum, 208) but warn that complete abandonment of the face is not possible unless we want to revert to being primitive, faceless people. They emphasise that we are “born into” the face, and it is only through its experimental dismantling that the new is to be proffered, where the distributions of the sensible (what is sensible and articulable) that underpin subjectivity and signification become loosened from the grip of their respective codes. If, as Deleuze and Guattari also suggest, “all faces envelop an unknown, unexplored landscape,” (191) we can think about the landscape involved in Falconetti’s performance – a landscape that was both expanded out and cut off by the close-up frame. What I found compelling about Falconetti’s (facial) performance concerned indiscernibility and neutrality, the way she edged toward a non-presence, slowly being drained into becoming otherworldly, impossible to contain or describe and possessed of something so strange that I hadn’t really seen captured on film, something almost inhuman – just as Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the face is the “inhuman in human beings”. (189) Roger Ebert suggests that Dreyer put Falconetti through a tough ordeal to get this performance: “There is an echo in the famous methods of the French director Robert Bresson, who in his own 1962 The Trial of Joan of Arc put actors through the same shots again and again, until all apparent emotion was stripped from their performances. In his book on Dreyer, Tom Milne quotes the director: ‘When a child suddenly sees an onrushing train in front of him, the expression on his face is spontaneous. By this I don’t mean the feeling in it (which in this case is sudden fear), but the fact that the face is completely uninhibited.’ That is the impression he wanted from Falconetti.” As I have been trying to come to grips with it lately, I was struck by a possible affiliation between this notion of the spontaneity of acting, Falconetti’s face/performance, in relation to some things I have been reading on Alain Badiou’s difficult notion of indiscernibility, especially in the ‘wake’ of an event – the idea that the redistributive power of a disruptive event lays out a multiplicity of possible forms and inputs with no fixed contours; that Falconetti, as it were via her face, undergoes an ‘event’, acts an event, and formulates a new ‘situation’ open to anything whatsoever in regard to established knowledge – that there is no way to come to ‘terms’ with it. This might be absolutely misguided, considering my poor grasp of Badiou’s philosophy, but I found myself wondering if the film concerned the display of the matter of the new coming into being, and how the indiscernibility of Falconetti’s face – the way is dissipates itself, self-cancels, exhausts – is suggestive of a quality of indiscernibility whose nature cannot be discerned by existing categories of discourse. The face exhibits an occurrence that of a previous situation being redrawn, re-seen, stripped bare of any predicates, of any identity. As I understand it, Badiou’s emphasis is only on the structure of concrete situations, not their specific qualities, but could it be that the morphing of Joan’s face, as it were, its becoming-blankness, its becoming-anything-whatsoever, is something that concerns the structure of an event, as if Dreyer had filmed the ‘act’ of revelation, the ‘moment’ of decision, the ‘transit’ of suffering, etc. and that the film, mainly though the ‘leading edge’ of Falconetti’s face,  constitutes a diagram that maps the gesture of an ‘event’ as if it is happening, and the blankness, the openness, the facial expression that is now prepared for what is ‘to come’, that accompanies it?