The first in a short series celebrating the films of the Pathé-Natan company, 1926-1934.
The late silents and early talkies of France are arguably neglected in comparison with, say, the German cinema. Yet at Pathé-Natan, work was produced which rivals in sophistication that of any other country you care to name. Directors from France, Germany and Russia worked there, innovating and developing under the umbrella of a distinctive "house style." Time they had their due.
La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc (1929), directed by Marco de Gastyne, was a big hit: it easily beat Dreyer's La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) at the box office, benefitting, in the eyes of French audiences, from having a real Frenchwoman as Joan. The Dreyer was a multi-national co-production, but what audiences overlooked was that the Gastyne film was produced by a Romanian Jewish emigre, Bernard Natan, who had bought control of Pathé, the country's most distinguished film company.
In the long result of time, however, Dreyer has come out on top. While Gastyn's movie was state of the art for its day, the Dreyer looks like it's been beamed from the future, from another dimension where silent movies never ended, and just kept getting more beautiful and more intense.
Still, there's a lot to be said for Gastyn's movie. It differs from the Dreyer in most respects, since it covers more of Joan's life, taking in the visions and the battles as well as the trial and execution. The approach aims for the epic and authentic, contrasting vividly with the concentrated focus and stylized settings of the Dreyer. For most of the first hour, this seems a mistake: it's certainly a more obvious approach, but it should still work. Unfortunately, too much of the film moves like a pageant, with scenes presented as tableaux with explanatory intertitles rather than being effectively dramatized. Joan's approach to the Dauphin is effective (history wrote a good scene there), and Philippe Hériat makes a suitably villainous-looking Gilles de Rais. But too many scenes of riders crossing low horizons somewhat try the patience: pictorialism is all very well, but we need a bit more character interplay to feel that any of these people once lived. Being assured that they're wearing real armor, jewels and costumes from the period isn't enough.
The intermittent moments of zest abruptly achieve critical mass with the attack on Orleans, filmed with violent traveling shots with the charging horses, and a rapid montage of bloody, dying men. There are even hand-held shots, and the whole effect is very Chimes at Midnight. (The dominant stylistic tropes of many Natan productions are distinctly Wellesian: sweeping, exploratory camera movements interrupted by violent frenzies of montage, with canted angles and looming close-ups.) It always seemed to me that the vision of medieval warfare as blood and mud owed something to the memory of World War One, and that makes sense here, given the era. The film strives to maintain some of the horror of warfare while telling a patriotic story of divine inspiration, and Joan is traumatized by the carnage around her.
Ernst Lubitsch felt that Dreyer's film missed the martial side of Joan's character: he couldn't believe that the character portrayed by Falconetti could have led men into battle. Gastyn's film has the advantage of depicting the battles, and his solution is to make it clear that Joan's role is an inspirational one: she's not a modern Milla Jovovich kick-ass babe, but a kind of moral mascot to the troops. When she's struck by an arrow, the retreat is swiftly sounded. When she rallies, so do her forces.
Swiftly following the victory at Orleans, Joan's capture is swept aside so that the trial can be presented at some length (though it's seriously truncated and simplified compared to the Dreyer, which has the luxury of devoting the whole running time to the trial and execution). Here, some similarities become apparent between the rival films, and not just because they're presenting the same text. Gastyn, like Dreyer, uses the faces of his characters to tell the story, exploiting the signs of age in the judges to contrast with the youth and purity of Joan. It's rather like a political cartoon, and arguably it's an unsubtle technique even in Dreyer, though the loving care his lens lavishes on every wrinkle and liver spot is anything but crude. Gastyn's propagandistic purpose is a little more naked and so there's a resemblance to the way Griffith would simplify his villains down to a few unattractive physical traits and some slovenly behavior.
Still, it's another effective sequence, leading up to the dramatic martyrdom. Even if Gastyn, a gifted professional, can't really match the inspiration of Dreyer, he is helped enormously by his lead, Simone Genevois (who had just appeared in Gance's Napoleon), about the only actress to convincingly embody Joan as a teenager—partly because she was one. Her air of innocence seems authentic, the simplicity of her performance matches Falconetti, and Gastyn's greater simplicity of presentation helps her too. What's so miraculous about the Dreyer-Falconetti collaboration is the intense, ecstatic concentration brought to every moment, whereas Gastyn isn't afraid to let things slide past us without emphasis. And with his leading lady being so young, he can show her without makeup and with the ravages of sleep deprivation visible in her face without losing the conviction that this is a girl of nineteen, plunged into international affairs by a spiritual vision.
It's clear not only why this film was more popular than Dreyer's (although it can't compete as a work of art): the film actually makes the appeal of the Joan character more lucid. As an embodiment of the spirit of France, she's tailor-made: female, Catholic, beautiful, defiant: and her story shows a simple peasant being more patriotic and brave than the king, so it feeds into the modern democratic France too.
The success of La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc bolstered Pathé-Natan as the company set about the difficult business of converting to sound production. And it is in the sound era that the studio produced its most remarkable works...
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.