excerpt from

The Faces of Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc

     Joan of Arc, the actual person, was born in 1412 and burned at the stake in 1431. That makes her about 19 years old when she was put on trial for living her life. That's all she was trying to do. She felt she knew the reason she was put on earth, and when she started pursuing that reason, the authorities felt threatened. She wore the clothes of a man, and although this bothered them slightly, what really bothered them was her insistence that she could communicate with god. That was their job and that's why they had her arrested.

     In Carl Dryer's silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc, the role of Joan was played by a woman named Renee Falconetti, and although she wasn't burned at the stake she felt, or imagined that she felt, or wanted to feel, what it felt to be Joan of Arc. This was the only film she ever made and because she sought this identification she cut her hair short like Joan's hair, and she wore, like Joan, the clothes of a man. It wasn't that she wanted the look that Joan had; what she wanted was the authority Joan had, over her own life.

     In the story, the judges want her to sign a statement denying that she hears the voice of god, or that she speaks with angels, or that her life has a mission. At first, because she does hear voices she refuses to sign. But later, when she's threatened with torture, she reluctantly signs the paper and this is what Falconetti can't quite understand. She relates to the saint in Joan but not to the 19 year old girl, and that's why, one day, after everyone else has left the set, she stands in the middle of the specially built dungeon looking at the light stands and scaffolding, and also instruments of torture. Leaning against the wall she sees a metal plate - about as tall as she is - covered with spikes, and she walks to this plate and she touches one of the spikes. She presses her finger against the point, letting her finger, and the sensitive nerves beneath the ridges of her fingertip, find the pain in the spike. Joan of Arc would never betray herself for a little pain, she thinks, and she takes the edges of the plate, pulls it away from the wall, and then she lies down on her back on the tiled floor. And as she does she pulls the plate on top of her. She's wearing a light cotton dress and at first the plate doesn't hurt. It lays on her like a lover, on her hip bones and rib cage and the spikes aren't sharp enough to penetrate into her body, and although it's heavy, it's not that heavy, and she lets her hands, which had been holding the plate, go limp, and it feels good, in a strange way, but as she relaxes and lets the weight of it sink into her flesh it starts to feel less good, and then less good, and then it starts to hurt and she thinks that if she can accept it, the pain might go away, and she tries, and although the pain does go away, it comes right back, worse than before, and she wants to accept it but finally she can't, and she screams out. She screams, and then she pushes the plate off her body. And the next day, for the scene when she has to submit to the judges, she does. The withered old men assure her that it is her choice, that the decision to sign the paper is up to her, but really what choice does she have? If she doesn't agree she knows what will happen. She remembers the spikes pressing into her skin and she's willing to do what they want. She's willing to say that her work is the work of the devil.

- John Haskell

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