The Passion of Saint Jean of Marshalltown
“Modern Matinees” at the Museum of Modern Art offers a two-month “Fifteen by Otto Preminger.” Dictatorial, difficult and daring, the Austrian-born director-producer-sometimes actor gained a strong foothold with noir Laura and for four decades turned out gloss, extravaganza, schmaltz, flops, laughers, famous titles, successes and some gems. Somewhere in the middle is his Saint Joan, which came close to sinking his actress’ career at its very start and was savaged by critics and moviegoers.
For one thing, to be fair, no take on the Maid of Orleans can bear comparison with the Dreyer The Passion of Joan of Arc, game-changing in close-ups of the exquisite one-film Renée Maria Falconetti.
For another, unlike Jacques Rivette’s two-part, broader and better 1994 Jeanne la Pucelle, but like Victor Fleming’s 1948 Joan of Arc from a Maxwell Anderson play and starring Ingrid Bergman, “Otto the Terrible” also did his 1957 take from the stage, with Graham Greene screenwriting and framing as flashback the fully titled Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Both mid-century plays-into-films are studio bound and windy; Dreyer’s 1928 silent had to be visual but did still not dilute itself with battles and burnings, whereas the later ones should have done something, anything, to diffuse their pseudo-philosophical gas. Shaw prologued his 1923 “saint” as rather calculating, a more interesting personality than the perfection in Twain’s boring Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc.
The hundred-twelve-minute Preminger was highly anticipated due to publicity about the nationwide hunt for a lead, the part supposedly refused by Audrey Hepburn because husband Mel Ferrer was not to play the Dauphin. The choice was seventeen-year-old University of Iowa freshman Jean Seberg, who would redeem herself a little in Preminger’s next, Bonjour Tristesse, a lot in Robert Rossen’s Lilith, and become a Nouvelle Vague figure in Breathless only to descend into bad marriages, fragile mental health and, harassed by the FBI and press for Black Panther activity, die a young probable suicide.
Unprepared for the spotlight and unprepared for the rôle in which she was out of her depth, Seberg radiates a scrubbed American earnestness that, except for a few late frames, jars against the whole. Not that the historical Joan was not different from others, but that without dirt or sweat or quaver, the novice actress’ Brownie Scout in armor rings hollow and attracts no sympathy.
The fault of such flatness, however, cannot be laid wholly at her feet. The rest of an experienced cast mouth equally insipid pap masquerading as Truth or Falsehood.
The body of the story should not be criticized in that it totally avoids easy cinema of fifteenth-century clashes between canon fodder and of methods of torture. But thus it is left to fall back on the brief introduction of the braided skirted farm girl; the cropped-haired savior of her country picking out the real, effete Dauphin (an awful Richard Widmark); her post-victory defiance of his just-crowned hopscotching Highness, Charles VII -- Charley to her -- and the realpolitik Archbishop of Rheims (Finlay Currrie); and her trial commented on by the cynical Earl of Warwick and his personal man of the cloth John de Stogumber (John Gielgud, Harry Andrews).
The endless talk is of institution vs. individual, Church vs. the girl’s “heretical” voices-visions, France vs. Burgundy vs. England, expedience vs. justice, at the molasses pace of a celluloid lecture.
The bumbling night-shirted and -capped Roi Charley VII who dreamt of the materialized martyr at the opening, reappears from under his covers for the conclusion. This time the wrinkled, old, actually dead ruler is joined not only by the military genius maid but as well by some half-dozen dead players from her short drama. Some appear from heaven, which is infinitely less interesting in Shavian terms than its opposite, the hell of the others. In a forgive-and-let-live semi-comic tone out of sync with what has gone before, this tolerant conclave of souls who have learned their lessons includes the soldier who in pity handed her a cross of sticks to kiss in the auto-da-fé.
(Released by United Artists; not rated by MPAA.)