The 40-some-odd years of the Silent Era was a period of fertile artistic growth—not just in terms of artistry and subject matter, but technology, too. As the years crept by, the camera grew less fragile and more portable. It began its first stiff pans around 1900 and by the 1920s was sweeping gracefully across the actors’ faces, catching glimpses of ever-subtler performances. A pristine close-up, a long take and the face of, say, a Greta Garbo, was a potent and profound combination.
It was different in 1899. It was theatrical. The actors in Jeanne d’Arc appear to us as they would have on-stage: small, with outsized gestures and elaborate costumes to confirm their roles and actions. Denied their speeches (or even title cards, as 1899 was a bit early even for that), they rely on their pantomime skills, accompanying music, and the presumed voice-over work of a live narrator. The effect, to our eyes and perhaps nineteenth-century eyes as well, can be goofy. We marvel at director Georges Melies’ accomplishments with this film (at 10 minutes, a very long film for the time), but chuckle a bit at the naiveté.
This could be our problem, rather than the film’s. I believe that one of the things preventing some modern movie-fans from fully embracing silent movies is their tendency to impose modern assumptions about cinema’s purposes onto older work. To put it less awkwardly, we take for granted that a film has a plot, which the film’s scenes are strung together to support. The purpose of those scenes is to elicit some response from the viewer, whether it be laughter, grief, fear or awe. And it is the filmmakers’ responsibility to achieve all his or her aims within the boundaries of this single film, because chances are very likely that it is the only film you’ll be watching in that theatre, that day. A complete experience is both the best we can hope for and the least we expect.
Alright, but what if the films you watched were projected on a screen in a carnival tent, or the white-painted wall of your local dry goods store? Suppose they were 10 minutes long, at the very most, and you could expect to watch 10 or more of them at a sitting—all different types and themes, from documentary footage to comedies to melodramas? The voice-over and musical accompaniment might change from one show to the next, not just because the performers changed, but because each might bring a different interpretation of what he or she saw on-screen. And then there’s the guy showing the films: the one who took your penny. He has 10 films on the ticket and he can show them in whatever order he chooses. Maybe he’s showing live theatre and magic tricks, too. How will his particular mix of entertainments affect you, the viewer? And how would a director, conscious of this semi-chaos awaiting his film’s premieres, adapt them for it?
In Melies’ case, this meant creating a film of breathless pace; one that never stops for contemplative moments or establishing shots, because the narrator can fill in the audience on anything it doesn’t know going in, and there’s no close-ups to project heavy feeling, anyway. It meant cherry-picking key episodes from the Joan of Arc legend (up there, to be sure, with the sinking of the Titanic in terms of filmic malleability) and doing his best to blow the audience away with his presentation of each as a standalone piece.
Melies did not begin life as a movie-man—you couldn’t have, in 1899. He was an actor, cartoonist and stage magician who knew how to make sets and backdrops that evoked what they could not mimic, and were beautiful. So in Jeanne d’Arc, we open with Jeanne/Joan (Bleuette Bernon) in a phony, but very prettily painted forest glen, being addressed by the Archangel Michael. Michael floats above her, gesturing solemnly with his sword as Joan exhibits her concerns below him. The angel and his shimmering crown disappear and both Joan and the live deer around her get to scurrying.
While Michael’s garb recalls the depictions of angels and the Heavenly Host common in the real Joan’s era, you can also see a second, more elegant point of recollection. Much like the medieval artists he’s emulating, Melies builds scenes that are obviously flat, absent perspective, and relevant unto themselves, rather than as parts of a whole composition. However, unlike those early painters, Melies’ signature look draws from his background in another medium: theatre. Jeanne d’Arc unapologetically merges the clearly fake (the sets) with realest real (the actors). This is not shoddiness, or primitive F/X at work: it’s deliberate.
Jeanne d’Arc’s most remarkable scene is set in Compiègne. In this sequence of about two minutes, French soldiers storm a castle, which is presented as a backdrop against the fixed camera. There is fencing (that is, a fence) in the foreground. Joan appears first, on horseback. She is huge before the camera (especially by the standards of this film) and then we see the castle gate open. Burgundian soldiers spill from inside, drag Joan off her horse and into the castle. Now the French arrive, frantic, spilling into the frame from either side. They, too, are close to the camera—at a proximity no stage show could provide us—and so we are pulled into the scene as they tear down the fencing and, through a bit of falsified perspective in the form of a second stage level, appear to charge into the distance and scale the walls. A smoke-filled battle ensues. The sequence concludes with a captured Joan recollecting her call to arms by the angel—through a flashback in the form of a window above her head. Within the window is the alternate variation of the film’s opening scene. Melies here proved not only what cinema could reproduce from the stage, but also what it could improve upon.
And I’ve never forgotten it.