Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Ingrid Bergman in Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake

Ingrid Bergman made two movies about Joan of Arc. The first (1948) was directed by Victor Fleming. Any film with Bergman as the star is watchable, but the script (Maxwell Anderson) is wooden, and the production is pretty daft. Shortly after, Bergman met Roberto Rossellini and they had a torrid affair which scandalized Hollywood. But one positive outcome was that together they made serious art movies.

Bergman's second Joan ofArc was Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher (1954), (Giovanna d'Arco al rogno) a filmed version of Arthur Honegger's oratorio, directed by Rossellini.  It's a very good example of how film can enhance music. Honegger's work is psychodrama as oratorio, and Rossellini understands its context.

The set is minimal, shot against a dark background with small lights like stars. Joan is alone with her confessor Frère Dominic. These are her last moments as she waits by the stake, and Joan is examining her conscience. She's manacled, but her mind roams free.  Honegger deliberately sets her part as speech, not song, to show how simple and vulnerable she is. It may be hard for those used to "ordinary" oratorio to appreciate that this heroine doesn't do heroic grand display. Joan is a heroine because she's pure and humble.

Even dressed in sackcloth, her hair shorn, Bergman radiates. Rossellini doesn't need special effects. Bergman's beauty comes from within. Honegger's narrative, such as it is, unfolds in a series of tableaux, like the Stations of  the Cross in Catholic churches, which people follow stage by stage as they meditate on Jesus's journey of suffering.  Rossellini frames Joan's way to the stake with two deliberately stylized scenes of heaven. Saints float in a sky of primitively painted clouds - the kind of painting you might see in a wayside shrine in the countryside, as Joan might have seen, centuries ago. Saints and angels move in a huge circle, the image of a halo, a crown or of the voices closing in on Joan's mind.

Rossellini understands how Honneger's music works. Each tableau is shown as a vision, opening out of the bare stage on which Joan and Frère Dominic are standing. Moreover, each tableau is shown from Joan's perspective. The judges are seen as animals, as a traumatized girl like Joan might have imagined. Honegger sets their words as comic grotesque, which is perceptive, for Joan didn't understand Latin, the language of the Church. It also underlines her peasant sensibilities, so far removed from the intrigues of state. Rossellini puts masks on his actors, so they look like players in medieval mystery plays, who probably did sing in grunts and squawks.

Honegger describes the camp of the English knights with mock-heroic pageantry. They're playing an obscure card game just like they're playing a game with the French nation. Then Honegger writes quasi-folk dance, and Rossellini shows a group of peasant girls dancing in a circle - as the saints and angels did - and Bergman joins them. "It was so, in my father's house" Joan tells the monk, meaning her earthly father. But Rossellini shoots the scene in a surreal mist and there's a mound behind, like the pyre at the stake. Je vais, J'irai! cries Bergman, for she's already on her way. Rossellini uses a technique where he superimposes Bergman's image over the background so she's partly transparent, between two worlds.  Again,this expresses Honegger's music perfectly, for the composer superimposes different threads of music - the folk song, the pageantry and exquisite crosscurrents of abstract music. It's amazingly daring, sophisticated writing.

The mob (the choir) taunts Joan as she's chained to the stake. Now their singing disintegrates to semi-speak, while Joan sings for the first time. Not a glorious triumphant aria but the folk song the girls sang before. It's so basic that even Bergman and the actresses who play the part can sing it. Honegger is telling us that Joan's an ordinary human being, ennobled not by her deeds but by her faith.  Je ne veux pas mourir! J'ai peur! she sobs, but then the song of the angels returns. Je n'ai pas seule!

Discords as the flame rise and the mob shouts, but the music of the angels wins out. Rossellini shoots Bergman, rising upward through the mists suggested in Honegger's ethereal music, until she joins the heavenly circle in the sky. It's tempting to read Rossellini's love for Bergman into this film, and his anger at the way she was vilified in Hollywood, but I think Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher stands on its own merits as a superb example of sensitive, musically informed film making.

Lots more on Joan of Arc, art film and music on film on this site and more to come!

1 comment:

grimmfo said...


After reading this I must see the Rossellini film.
I watched the Barcelona performance today and thought it overall to be very good. Cottilard was excellent as was the rest of the cast. (i prefer my Frerè Dominic's to be on the younger side - brings a certain frisson to the exchanges between Joan & Dominic.
Musically I thought the performance a little on the cautious side, but I was still moved at all the right places.

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