Apr 1, 2021

The Passion of La Falconetti

For a time around the turn of the aughts, I and the crew at Back Stage West did an annual "Actors We Love" issue. Over the years the folks I wrote about included Alyson Hannigan, Bob Balaban, Ernst Lubitsch's informal repertory ensemble, the entire company of Theatre of Note—and Falconetti, the star of one of the great films of all time. As I'm about to be a guest on Alissa Wilkinson and Sam Thielman's great podcast Young Adult Movie Ministry to talk about this film, I've revisited my piece on this indelible performance, and share it here with you.

Actors We Love: Maria Falconetti

Mysterious Ways

Back Stage West, June 5, 2003

A cloud of mystery shrouds the actress known to her colleagues simply as "La Falconetti"—even her name, it seems, was open to debate (recorded as Renee at birth, listed in later credits as Maria). Born in Corsica and dead at 54 in Buenos Aires—unofficial capital of mysterious expatriates—she was for a time a celebrated actress/producer of light comedies on the Paris stage. And yet her only film performance, in Carl Theodor Dreyer's anguished 1927 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a raw, riveting portrait of the martyr's spiritual transfiguration. Who was this woman, and where did this otherworldly performance—probably the greatest ever recorded on film—come from?

Accounts of the film's making reveal that Dreyer and Falconetti didn't know where it came from—and that because they knew they didn't know, they cradled this enigma as, in Dreyer's words, "a secret that...should be experienced and not explained." It is known that Dreyer shot the film in sequence, but there are also disturbing reports from the set that he made Falconetti kneel on stones to get her to cry, and he relentlessly repeated takes to get her to go further and further emotionally, to break her, to mold her. This apparent aesthetic sadism may explain a few of Falconetti's more pained expressions, and one should never underestimate the ways a grueling shoot can seep into the emotional color of a sensitive performance. But there's no way to explain the overwhelming power or Falconetti's Joan, undimmed over the decades, except as inspiration of singular, even divine nature.

Based on the transcripts of Joan's trial before a special assembly of the Inquisition, Dreyer's film begins in a courtroom and ends at the stake, spending most of the interim in Joan's cell. There are no establishing shots to speak of and only a fleeting few in which we see Falconetti's whole body; she's disconcertingly small and stiff in these moments. Whole books have been written about the ways Dreyer stretched and subverted the film medium with disorienting angles, multi-valenced sightlines, and discontinuous editing—there are almost no cuts on an action, and only a handful that carry a figure from one shot to the next. And there has been a full accounting of the way Dreyer's severe minimalist aesthetic attains its curious timelessness; Jean Cocteau famously said the film was like "an historical document from an era in which the cinema did not exist."

But there can be no accounting of Falconetti's performance, which transpires almost entirely on the landscape of her dark, unmade-up face, except to record moments: the impossibly wide in eyes of a near-fanatic hearing divine voices, receding to the half-lidded despair of a prophet who understands she'll be misunderstood; the childlike eagerness to trust the hypocrites who dangle Holy Communion before her as a bribe, turning to wracked, tearless sobs of bitter defeat when she realizes the betrayal; the beatific, triumphal glow as she finally overcomes her accusers with an innocence so boundless they eventually crumble in awe. All of these register so strongly, and in such pore-gazing close-up, as to be almost unbearably intimate and moving. Indeed, after a while, though it's a silent film, we can hear Joan's breathless "oui."

If the ephemeral Falconetti left few reliable records of her life, in Passion she left something more: the miraculous leap of the spirit from the body into the camera's watchful, omniscient eye.
Rob Kendt