restricted access The Rhetoric of Passion
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Camera Obscura 18.2 (2003) 57-91

[Access article in PDF]

The Rhetoric of Passion

Sean Desilets


Carl-Theodor Dreyer's 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc [La passion de Jeanne d'Arc] takes shape around the tension between its mode of representation and the subjectivity it represents. Dreyer's Joan is the Joan of popular mythology. She is a naive and innocent girl from the country, alternately terrified of and enraptured by the high-powered theologians whose job it is, essentially, to find an excuse for killing her. Images of her face, close-ups of immense compositional sophistication and emotional force, constitute the film's aesthetic center. Her character is, in short, the very stuff of semantic stability. But spatial unity structures semantic stability in the visual field, and the film that represents this character does so very much in a mode of spatial disruption. Insistent and fragmentary close-ups, fast and unpredictable editing, and off-centered framings radically decontextualize its narrative space. The resulting tension is irresolvable: Joan's personality and the film's spatial organization make equally categorical demands on our attention, but to attend to one means canceling or ignoring the other. What seems at first glance to confront us, therefore, is a narrative of the conflict between an ideally unified human subject and a chaotic universe from which it is irrevocably alienated. Critical commentary on The Passion of Joan [End Page 57] of Arc revolves around this dynamic. According to Paul Schrader, for example, "The architecture of Joan's world literally conspires against her . . . the halls, doorways, furniture are on the offensive. . . even the camera movement is conspiring against her." 1 For Gilles Deleuze, the work of the film's central stylistic element, the close-up, is to "extract" the "'quality' of victim or of martyrdom . . . to extract from the event this inexhaustible and brilliant part which goes beyond its own actualization." 2 Each critic in his own way describes the relation between the film's pathos and its stylization by treating these as elements of an aesthetically and semantically coherent whole that miraculously absolves the critic from having to distinguish between them. Either the stylization becomes a negative articulation of the pathos (Schrader's model) or the pathos (however qualified) becomes the determinate element of style (Deleuze's model).

David Bordwell's chapter on The Passion of Joan of Arcin his discussion of Carl-Theodor Dreyer's oeuvre is the most coherent, subtle, and rigorous attempt to treat the film's stylistic eccentricity and its narrative as elements of an aesthetically coherent whole. Unlike those of Schrader and Deleuze, Bordwell's account of the effects of the film's style is evocative and accurate:

Effacement of depth, camera angles which balloon the figures upward and cut their ties to the ground, decentered framings which make the characters perch virtually anywhere in the frame, and graphic motifs which play across the screen surface—all these devices yield a cubist space which sets elements in a tug-of-war with each other. Here a shot is less a slice of a spatial whole than the intersection of a number of forces—geometrical shapes, oddly tilted heads and shoulders—set against a blank surface. 3

For Bordwell, the rigorously coherent structure of the film's narrative—which includes both its immanent narrative and its allegorical connection to the Christ story—acts as a counterpoint to the disorientation produced by its style. The film thus organizes itself around the tension between the coherence of Joan's story and the incoherence of its disruptive spatial fragmentation (92). [End Page 58] Bordwell's important departure from readings that see only a struggle between two synchronic structures (Joan as subjective unity against the film's stylistic discontinuity) is his recognition that Joan's subjective unity depends on a narrative that at once benefits from and maintains that unity. He argues that Joan's "victory" draws support from both "the transhistorical aspect of her speech—the spontaneity that certifies the spiritual expressiveness of the spoken word" and "the way in which the film's narrative structure confirms...