Saturday, July 23, 2011

MIFF session 1 : The Silence of Joan

A young woman with a ponytail stands at the parapet of a castle wall. She asks for forgiveness and then lets herself fall. Oh ... she's Joan of Arc. We then see her on a stretcher being led to a cell where she is manacled to a bed. She takes an angry vow of silence. "Including you," she spits. It's 15th century France. When people address god they don't know they are talking to themselves.

The voices which led her and France to military victory over the hated English have also gone silent. If she has become reviled since the victories have dried up her own silence spooks her captors. What follows is a number of  associations which illustrate a range of sanctification. Her prison physician sees her as a force of nature as essential  to his life as the bees whose honey he delivers to his patient. The English captain charged with delivering her to his superiors bows to her as one warrior to another. Then, as the inevitable conclusion at the stake approaches we find two religious figures, a monk and a pilgrim, pragmatic and ethereal by turns failing to save her from the flames.

The sole needless material in the film is that which shows her treatment at the hands of the English. A number of informative titles appear throughout which provide minimal background to what we are seeing. What we are seeing is the very kind of thing Kubrick referred to as non-submersible units: sizeable scenes, even in weight and depth that give a sense of witness to an audience rather than more conventional emotional empathy. The scenes around the trial, the cruelty and mockery of the English are possibly there to contrast with the awe in the other units but they take a trip down biopic lane which feels like the lights going up at closing time. Still...

Clemence Poesy in the title role is continuously impressive. It took me half the film to work out why she was so familiar. She'd already compelled my eye by making a lot of the scanty role she had in Phillip Ridley's superb Heartless. As Joan she starts at the deep end by acting without words (and makes it look like real determination). As her physician delivers a eulogy of her victories her supine profile is like a sculpted Christ on a sepulchre come eerily to life. When the English captain gives her her first sight of the ocean, the peasant girl who has known the Boschian hell of mortal combat is shocked into white faced terror at this force she must compare to the god of her voices. Her delivery of the statement demanded by her English judges has an anger and sadness that has the cool quiet of the cloister but also the hiss of the flames that await her.

M. Night Shamylan's Signs was a strong thriller/family drama that pulled the plug on its own power by a screamingly oafish character reversal at the end. The Silence of Joan would not allow such a thing as it finds the notion of sanctity so fascinating (not just useful). In the end here, after the big event, are two moments of consecration, one earthly and compulsive but sweetened with ritual and the other bafflingly ascetic, performed using water from the same river. Roll credits. Beautiful.

Don't sit through the credits for the gag reel. Not worth it.

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