The Face of Jeanne

By Xanthe Ashburner, The University of Queensland, and John Edmond, Queensland Film Festival

Treatments of religious ecstasy in visual media (sculpture, painting, film) frequently – and perhaps paradoxically – rely for their power upon representations of the human face. Rendering the experience of ‘standing outside the self’ (the root meaning of ecstasy) has often meant concentrating intently upon the selfhood of the depicted subject, and especially upon the body and face as disclosing, or rendering legible and palpable, the ecstatic experience.

As the curator of ‘Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond’, Andrea Bubenik, has remarked, most of the works in the exhibition focus on the poses and gestures of solitary figures: witness the curved male torso of the Louise Bourgeois bronze Arched Figure (1993, cast 2010), the supplications of Claude Mellan’s Ecstasy of Saint Ignatius (1600s) and Chris Bennie’s dance moves in his film work Mothership (2004). Of the several works in the exhibition that reimagine Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila (1647–1652), many attend in particular to Bernini’s arresting depiction of Teresa’s face – see, for example, Audrey Flack’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa, reproduced below.

Audrey Flack, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 2013. Printed at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. pigment print and screenprint, edition 67/75 Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Audrey Flack, 2017. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York.
Audrey Flack, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 2013. Printed at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. pigment print and screenprint, edition 67/75 Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Audrey Flack, 2017. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York.

Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, 1928), which screened in Brisbane this week in conjunction with the exhibition, is a venerable entry in this tradition of representing ecstasy through attention to the face. The film has a colourful history: partially censored in France, where Dreyer’s Danish nationality and lack of Catholic conviction made him a controversial choice to direct a film about the then-recently-canonised Jeanne, and banned entirely in the UK, where its depiction of British soldiers was felt to be unnecessarily crude, the original cut of the film was for decades thought lost, until a near-complete version was discovered in the janitor’s closet of Dikemark psychiatric hospital in Olso (how it got there no one knows). The film is now considered one of the finest achievements of the silent era. Dreyer sought to depict what the opening intertitles call ‘the real Joan, not in armour but simple and human’. Jeanne D’Arc had been a powerful symbol of French patriotism during the First World War, but the film is uninterested in her military exploits, focusing instead on her martyrdom, which is rendered in dialogue drawn directly from the transcripts of her trial (held in the Bibliothèque de la Chambre des Députés in Paris).

In its representation of Jeanne, the film seeks what Dreyer called ‘realized mysticism’[1] – mysticism embodied or made visible. The technical vehicle for this realisation was a sustained use of the close-up, which turns upon the gargoyle-like faces of the judges, who interrogate and convict the heroine; upon the worn faces of the common people, who at the film’s close riot in response to Jeanne’s martyrdom; and, above all, upon the face of Jeanne herself, played with astonishing virtuosity by the stage actress Renée Falconetti. ‘Nothing in the world’, Dreyer once remarked, ‘can be compared to the human face’:

It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.[2]

Renée Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', 1928
Renée Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, 1928


Changes in media technology over the course of the twentieth century obscure how striking this intense focus on the face would have been for the film’s original audiences. Television, which gained ground in America and Britain from the 1940s, and Australia from the 1950s, tends to make extensive use of dialogue; in the medium’s early days the small size and reduced resolution of the screen necessitated a clear focus on the face of the speaker. In film-making, meanwhile, the rise of faster continuity editing has resulted in the abandonment of extended long shots in favour of much briefer shots stitched together quickly to convey information (as, for example, in the shot-reverse-shot method of showing characters in conversation). As a result of these developments, the close-up is now a commonplace, the default option for depicting speech. But in the silent age, a close-up of a face was a rare thing, a privileged shot reserved for moments of heightened feeling or revelation. Writing in the 1980s, Gilles Deleuze proposed that close-ups lent an aura of ‘faceicity’ (visagéité) even to non-face objects, causing them to ‘stare … at us … look at us … even if [they] do not resemble a face’. The shot was thus central to film’s affective potential, its capacity for producing ‘affection images’.[3]

Dreyer drew upon this affective power of the close-up. His abundant use of the shot stretches the feeling of spiritual intensity to much of the film’s run-time, producing something like an extended study of at once acute anguish and powerful visionary ecstasy. The effect is increased by the use of 4:3 aspect ratio – taller and narrower than the now-standard 1.85:1 (widescreen) or 2.35:1 (Cinemascope) – which causes the image to loom over the spectator, as well as by Dreyer’s famous eschewal of make-up, wigs or other instruments of ‘beautification’.[4] The lack of cosmetics, often supposed a realist or organic touch on Dreyer’s part, actually produces a kind of hyperrealism: make-up in early cinema compensated for the harsh glare of the lighting rigs and the deficiencies of orthochromatic film stock; in its absence faces appear grotesque and marked by a level of detail unavailable to ordinary vision. The modernist poet H. D. found the denuded visual style of the film harrowing, writing that the film

has caused me more unrest, more spiritual forebodings, more intellectual racking, more emotional torment than any I have yet seen. We are presented with Jeanne d’Arc in a series of pictures, portraits burnt on copper, bronze if you will, anyhow obviously no aura of quattrocento gold and gold dust and fleurs-de-lys … [the figure of Jeanne] is done in hard clear line, remorseless, poignant, bronze stations of the cross.[5]

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 4.32.03 PM

The relentless exposure to Jeanne’s face unsettles even now. Depriving the character of privacy, rendering her sufferings and her mysticism visible or ‘realized’, Dreyer’s use of close-up has the effect of disturbing our own privacy. Soliciting our empathy for Jeanne’s sufferings, focus on the face brings us outside ourselves, suggesting a version of ecstasy in our own experience of the film.

Xanthe Ashburner is an Education and Outreach Officer and a Research Assistant with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Queensland. She was recently awarded an MPhil in American literature by The University of Queensland.

John Edmond is Director of the Queensland Film Festival. His holds a PhD from The University of Queensland, for a thesis that explored the travelling shot in the history of cinema. He is currently completing a monograph on the Ken Russell film Altered States.


[1] Quoted in John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 282.

[2] From a lecture delivered at Edinburgh, reproduced in Jan Wahl, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), p. 134.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I: The Movement-Image (1983), trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 88.

[4] Quoted in Aberth, A Knight at the Movies, p. 282.

[5] H. D. ‘Joan of Arc’, Close Up 3, no. 1 (July 1928). Reproduced in Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism, ed. by James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (London: Cassell, 1998), p. 130.

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