Our Timeless Obsession with the Cross-Dressing, Rebellious Saint Joan of Arc

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" is a 90-year-old silent film that proves the religious icon will forever captivate filmmakers and audiences alike.
April 4, 2018, 3:32pm
Photo courtesy of Janus Films

Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

There is no crying face in cinema more iconic than that of Renée Jeanne Falconetti (also known as Maria Falconetti), the woman who immortalized the saint for the screen with her role in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her eyes, full of tears—wide with terror at one moment then lowered with despair the next—have become synonymous with the cinematic language of suffering and martyrdom (Falconetti’s crying had also inspired Jean-Luc Godard to emulate the scene with Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie). But for all the waterworks, and the haunting imagery of the worn-down woman, Joan of Arc has always been an icon of female strength.


She’s also been a subject of constant fascination for filmmakers, appearing in movies by Jacques Rivette (Joan the Maid), Roberto Rossellini (Joan of Arc at the Stake), Robert Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc), Otto Preminger (Saint Joan), and Luc Besson (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). These films, along with The Passion of Joan of Arc and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (which, yes, has a Joan of Arc storyline) will screen at the Quad Cinema from April 6–12 for the series "Woman, Warrior, Saint: Joan of Arc Onscreen." The series celebrates the release of yet another Joan of Arc movie: Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a heavy metal musical about young Joan (it’s kooky but serious, and seriously good).

But the oldest of these films is Dreyer’s, which will celebrate its 90th anniversary on April 21. Falconetti, though operating entirely without dialogue, emotes more than most with just her face. The way one side of her face twitches—seemingly involuntarily—when she is given her death sentence is so alarmingly raw, it’s nearly impossible to watch without any emotional response, no matter your personal feelings on the historical figure. Passion works off the real documents from the 1431 trial against Joan of Arc, yet it takes artistic liberties and presents Joan with a vulnerability that’s specific to the art of the moving image. The male trial judges, also shot extremely close-up and from a low angle, become foreboding figures to Joan’s wounded one. Though it is a silent film, you can almost hear Falconetti’s heaving cries. And like the close-ups that show the characters’ weathered faces in detail, Dreyer, too, puts a magnifying glass on just a brief section of Joan’s life: her final moments before being burned at the stake. Because of its spotlight on the trial and execution, the film does little with the historical context of the Hundred Years’ War.

The jury and the crowd gathered believed that Joan of Arc was a witch, because she claimed she was hearing voices from God, but no matter where you stand on her story, one thing is scarily, undeniably true: Here is another woman whose story people refused to believe, and being punished for it by men in power. When will this narrative stop being familiar? The men questioning Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc ask her lewd questions, and in Rossellini’s adaptation, it is a man in a pig costume (who repeatedly yells "I am the pig!") who volunteers to judge Joan at trial—which brings to mind the French interpretation of the #MeToo movement, which translates to "denounce your pig."

Joan was also tried for the illegal act of cross-dressing, which included sporting a short, boy-like haircut, but it’s been documented that she did this in order to discourage rape. Not only is Joan a religious icon, but she’s also become a bit of an LGBTQ icon as well, for her 15th Century rebellion against gender norms.

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Whatever Joan means to you, she is a symbol of steadfast belief and endurance. And the film itself strangely mirrors the saint’s life. Not only did the Catholic Church censor the film (including a scene where Joan is bled), but the negatives were also burned and lost, until they were mysteriously found at a Norwegian mental institution more than 50 years after the film's premiere.

The Passion of Joan of Arc has a way of finding new life over and over again, and it’s having its moment again (a new restoration played Film Forum just a few months ago before the new Criterion release in March). Towards the end of the film, Joan, fearful of the flames, repents to save her own life. But she later changes her mind, powered by a newfound sense of devotion. "Tell me, how can you still believe in God?" one of the judges asks. She responds, "God moves in mysterious ways." By the end she faces a terrifying fate for any mortal, but Joan looks up to the heavens, filled with the promise of eternal paradise.