Tim Kinsella-led project Joan of Arc isn’t just the best choice to score The Passion of Joan of Arc because it concerns their namesake, but because director Carl Dreyer and the band both saw something relatable and universal in the plight of the 15th century icon they were moved to address. Dreyer set out to make The Passion of Joan of Arc after being inspired by the human portrait of the iconic teenager presented in the hyper-detailed transcript of the trials that eventually led to her death at the stake; in 1928, he set to commit that portrait to film. While centuries have not stretched between our reception and Dreyer’s Passion, the live score by the band Joan of Arc from the Chicago International Movies & Music Fest does the same, and does it beautifully: translates the story of a scared, but strong teenage girl facing insurmountable odds from legend to reality.
Like most silent films, the 1928 French drama The Passion of Joan of Arc probably had a band playing alongside it during its original showings — now, although live scores, especially for this film, are certainly not unheard of, period pieces tend to be bundled for the home or lower-budget showings with a period or classical score–even pieces that, like Joan of Arc, have never had a definitive one. This is fine; the experience is incomplete without a score. As every score brings a different layer of meaning to a film, so the period score sets the film into a time and place. Sometimes, this is entirely appropriate. In the case of Joan of Arc, which set out to be timeless, it seems fitting that its scores should evolve along with the audiences. With its tight frames, minimalist sets and complete eschewing of makeup, Dreyer more than accomplished what he set out to do — even if it may have been at the expense of his lead actress’s sanity— and it makes a brilliant canvas for a score to add its own take.
As the film is a meditation on faces, Joan of Arc keeps its score focused on droning patterns and recurring themes. Nothing is too elaborate, as it’s moving in tandem with the film’s narrow focus, which only takes us from Joan’s swearing in to her seemingly immediate execution. A series of slowly evolving patterns accompany Joan’s mental journey of fear, trust and faith as she is manipulated and tortured by the British religious and political elite, beginning with a harrowing, mechanical pulse as Dreyer provides his background information and sets the stage and launching into a dirge, a battle of between guitar and bass as the trial begins and Joan is interrogated.
Joan of Arc is able to do a lot with a small, selection of instruments: the guitar becomes chiming bells in some of the more hopeful moments of the trial, as when she befriends a young monk that takes pity on her or when for a second she trusts the judge that claims to be bringing her a letter from her King. Subsequently, they stick with a few, basic themes throughout, fitting with Dreyer’s stark, minimalist presentation: the hope-tinged chimes, a lonely, almost twanging guitar ditty for those crushing moments of isolation and confusion; a classical-inspired, haunting series of unaccompanied guitar arpeggios that transition into soft, major chords in moments of revelation; a manic, dissident, climbing beat that jars you into a panic when you start to be too contemplative. Like the title character, the score doesn’t stay set on one theme too long, calming when Joan suddenly thinks of the right thing to say, and reducing itself to an agonizing buzz when she’s at a loss for the appropriate reaction to a collection of tall, imposing men that want to kill her. The effect is somewhat grimy, but the execution is entirely crisp and clean, much like Dreyer’s painstaking focus on his actors’ expressions.
Even the surrounding spectacle of Joan’s execution is deftly scored — as the flames and smoke rise and the crowd reacts, the rising, euphoric noise allows the viewer to see the passion ignited in the surrounding crowd as they witness the execution that would make Joan a legend. As the French resistance arrives, there’s a total groundswell as the score’s themes converge for the ensuing riot (which may not be immediately true to historical timeline on Dreyer’s part, but is certainly an apt tribute to Joan’s influence on French military tactics). Kinsella does this justice, ending with a slow, drumbeat and a glimpse at the mournful theme reserved for Joan as Dreyer’s heartfelt epilogue about Joan rolls across the screen: “the flames sheltered Joan’s soul as it rose to heaven.”
To do the album as a standalone justice: a first listen without the film proved the score to be a powerful piece in its own right, although the legend of Joan of Arc is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to separate yourself from it. Even without the film, this is not the mystical tale of Joan finding her calling and leading French forces against British occupation; even without vocals, the score certainly tells the story of a young girl being discredited through faith and the witch-phobia so often used to discredit women, then ultimately condemned to a horrifying death. Certainly by itself, around an hour in it seems on occasion a tiny bit threadbare. But as film scores have set out to do since the dawn of the medium, the film and the score are at their strongest together — and both let the other tell a story that the other could not on its own.