Saint Joan (Otto Preminger / U.S., 1957):

King Charles (Richard Widmark) can't sleep, the camera tracks with him through a bare chamber and back to bed, on the other side of the frame appears Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc -- a phantom, a concept, a woman. Her story is recounted wryly, beginning with "a matter of eggs," a miracle executed by the village girl; she rides to the Dauphin's castle in soldierly pixie crop and armor, with Otto Preminger resolutely pragmatic about heavenly wonders even after her zeal changes the winds at the Orleans siege. The director briskly acknowledges Dreyer with a few close-ups, although he prefers the eye-level objectivity of analysis to the low-angled subjectivity of passion: the fevered heroine who "hears voices" is at the center of a grid of interacting interests, where the Dauphin and the Archbishop (Finlay Currie) ponder the political advantages of her faith in long takes that make cinematic space from theatrical set-ups. Joan's military victories are kept offscreen, the better to focus on her betrayal by the regent (her "There is some good in you, Charles" is answered with his "Be good... don't bother us" following his coronation) and her trial at the hands of the English inquisitors. Preminger mediates Joan and her accusers and also the agnosticism of George Bernard Shaw's play and the Catholicism of Graham Greene's screenplay; there's the intonations of John Gielgud and Felix Aylmer if a faithful transposition of the text is desired, only this is Preminger's telling, with the story's modernity announced immediately by the pop-art pendulums and cracked statues of Saul Bass' credits. Widmark, fidgety in royal robes or playing bow-legged hopscotch (to court applause), is chief in a gallery of surprising performances, but this is a work about Seberg -- a document on a restless, rebellious performer who, like her character, found herself trapped in a role. A reverse tracking shot leads her to the stake then cranes away as the pyre is lit; the accuser (Harry Andrews) drops to his knees at the sight, but Preminger is less quick to enshrine Seberg's Joan as just a saint, just as he refuses to see her Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse as just a decadent socialite. With Richard Todd, Anton Walbrook, and Archie Duncan. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home