The passion and music of Joan of Arc


Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp have written a new rock-influenced score for Carl Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc. When the score was premiered in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I reviewed the performance for the Spectator arts blog.

For Jean Cocteau, The Passion of Joan of Arc was ‘an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist’. And somehow that makes sense. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the trial and martyrdom of the Maid of Orleans claims fidelity to the 15th Century court transcripts, but has little in common with contemporary filmmaking.

Just as the film’s themes of false imprisonment, torture and popular uprisings resonate tragically in 21st Century headlines, The Passion of Joan of Arc feels modern, more than 80 years after it was made. Dreyer eschews establishing views and shot-reverse-shot in favour of extreme close-ups from disconcerting angles, and giddy camera movements.

A succession of grotesque images – maggots squirming in a skull, the wrinkled skin of the decrepit judges, blood spurting from a sliced artery – are intercut with the film’s one element of beauty: actress Maria Falconetti’s radiant, tear-stained face. It’s an unforgettable, ultimately cathartic, shock and unlike anything made before or since.

This timelessness is liberating for musicians: scoring this silent film doesn’t need to be a historical exercise. It isn’t important, arguably, to replicate the music that would be played in a cinema in the 1920s, nor would a facsimile of medieval French music necessarily suit its brutal style – which is where Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s synthesisers and six electric guitarists come in. Utley and Greogory, known for their roles in Portishead and Goldfrapp respectively, were commissioned to score Passion by Colston Hall in Bristol last year.

Last week saw the project’s triumphant London premiere, at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Passion’s visual achievement is so great that it can overwhelm a feeble accompaniment, but the duo’s enthralling score rises to the challenge – and a standing ovation testified to the audience’s appreciation.

As well as the guitars and synths, there are percussionists, a harpist (with three harps), the Vox Cordis chamber choir and a brass section – an elaborate ensemble deftly led by the acclaimed conductor Charles Hazlewood. The choice of instruments allows the score to evoke ecclesiastical tunes, military drums or, as in the opening sequence, Joan’s pounding heartbeat, while still very much being a continuous piece of music rather than a series of sound effects.

At its best, the score takes us inside Joan’s internal struggle: her faith battling her fear of death. The harp and the choir offer snatches of melody, when an errant judge proclaims Joan a saint, or her eyes fall on the shadow of a window-frame, forming a cross on the courtroom floor. The guitars, often distorted, use their extra weight well, emphasizing the life and death nature of Joan’s predicament.

For me, the choir is the star: sometimes the sopranos explicitly play the role of Joan’s spirituality, rising in chorus as she defends her visions against her accusers, and sometimes they join forces to create something far darker. As Joan burns at the stake, the singers bring home the horror of the scene, with harsh-toned stabs of vocals that recall Bernard Herrmann’s strings for Psycho.

Only as our heroine hangs limp from her scaffold, overwhelmed by fumes, does the choir become a heavenly host, singing sweetly for the martyr’s ‘grande victoire’. It is a powerful moment, but one that is swiftly buried by a barrage of frantic guitars. As the spectators riot, the camera swirls, and this unrelenting film, with its new, compelling score, reaches its devastating climax.

The Passion of Joan of Arc with live score by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory screens again at the Brighton Festival on 29th May and at Portishead’s I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Alexandra Palace, London on 24th July.

Pamela Hutchinson blogs about silent film screenings in London at Silent London.


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