by Allan Fish
(France 1929 125m) not on DVD
Aka. The Marvellous Life of Joan of Arc
A state of grace
p Marco de Gastyne d Marco de Gastyne w Jean-José Frappa ph Gaston Brun historical consultant Camille Vergniol
Simone Gènevois (Jeanne d’Arc), Choura Milena (Isabeau de Paule), Philippe Heriat (Gilles de Rais), Jean Toulout (Le Tremoille), Jean Debucourt (Charles VII), Daniel Mendaille (Lord Talbot), Georges Paulait (Loyseleur), Gaston Modot (Glasdall), Fernand Mailly (Capitaine la Hire), Pierre Douvan (Bishop Cauchon), François Viguier (Brother Pasquerel), Jean Manoir (Jean de Metz), Louis Allibert (Rémy Loiseau),
The first glimpse I had of Marco de Gastyne’s magnum opus was, as for so many, courtesy of Brownlow and Gill’s Cinema Europe, where the onus was on neglecting it in favour of Dreyer’s more famous simultaneously shot Jeanne. Everyone knows Dreyer’s Jeanne is untouchable, a thing as revered by cineastes as the real Jeanne is to the memory of every Frenchman. Yet de Gastyne’s film, its star, and even Gastyne himself have been airbrushed from the canvas of late French silent film.
It follows the story to the letter, of the teenager from Domrémy called upon by God – or Saints Catherine and Marguerite, depending on your take on it – to lead the French in setting the rightful heir back on the French throne and driving the English devils back across la Manche. It’s solemn from the very first caption, directly quoting that bastion of French historians, Jules Michelet; “let us always remember that our country was born from the heart of a woman, from her tenderness and tears, and from the blood she spilt for us.”
We all have our own Joans, and in Hollywood they’ve been a sorry bunch, for surely even they must have known that Jeanne’s tale is too French to be made by anyone else. And one thing de Gastyne has in favour over all versions is the age of its lead, Simone Gènevois, who was only 16 when the film went into production and was fresh from appearing in Gance’s Napoleon. Just compare it to the others; even Falconetti was in her late thirties. She radiates perhaps not the spirituality of Falconetti, the anguish (who could?) or the serenity and conviction of purpose of Bonnaire, but she has the innocence of the peasant virgin like no-one else. She convinces as the country girl naïve enough to think that in doing God’s work she’d not be used as a pawn by supposed friend and enemy alike, finally offered up to that Caiaphas in disguise, Bishop Cauchon. It’s not too strong a metaphor, for that’s exactly what de Gastyne intends, offering up the town square in Rouen on 30 May 1431 as surrogate Calgary.
Watching the film is a task in itself, only available through searching internet torrent sites, and even then rarely with English subtitles. The print varies depending on generation of copy, and hasn’t been restored since Renée Lichtig’s original resurrection in 1983 for the Cinematheque Française. All the other great Joans are there, pristine, on our DVD shelves, while de Gastyne lays forgotten. Yet did anyone match him in the epic spectacle of his battle scenes – Rivette’s in comparison seem to involve a few dozen on either side, Dreyer and Bresson don’t show them at all, cutting to the chase of the trial – or the scale of his vision. Yet somehow the print as it stands flickers at us as videos of silent films used to flicker before DVD, flickering through the flames of posterity like the dying embers of not just French silent cinema but as if the film might all have been a vision, much like those Jeanne sees in the fields back home, and of that home in her last dreams in her cell. This is a film de Mille would have loved to have made but could never really fathom; that his version starred an opera singer only tells its own story. Intimate and epic, romantic and secular, it’s a vision that was lapped up at the time. Please, please, get this on DVD, properly restored, not for Joan – she has enough hagiographies or otherwise in print and celluloid – but for Marco and Simone, for they are the forgotten ones.