Méliès Evolved for Joan of Arc

JOAN OF ARC (1900) — Georges Méliès

Note: This is the sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1900 film, JOAN OF ARC, directed by Georges Méliès.

Georges Méliès is one of my favorite directors of the silent era, perhaps of all time. His strange, féerie-inspired style and staging have truly never been duplicated in film, even if he took the popular French theater genre as his own in the first place. Like those kinds of plays, Méliès’ work, it could be argued, focus much more on style rather than substance, but around the turn of the 20th century, he was working hard to evolve his narrative craft. His 1899 hit CINDERELLA (which I’ve written about) represented a shift in technology and approach. With that film, Méliès was using a well-known story to supplement his innovative special effects. With JOAN OF ARC, he was using, very sparingly, his style and special effects to supplement a more complex, if not any less known, story.

Let’s be clear: JOAN OF ARC isn’t an intense or personal characterization of the historic figure, nor does it feature intricate plot details or a unique take on the story of the French saint. Indeed, the story is easy enough to follow even without the oral narration that Méliès would often have accompany his more ambitious films (as intertitles had not yet graced film), granted you have general knowledge of Joan of Arc. Nevertheless, the ten-minute film is as intense a drama as you’ll find in 1900, and that is driven home by its director’s relatively restrained fantastical hand.

Even still, the film opens with Joan’s vision of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, angelic, floating figures that immediately put the Méliès stamp on the film. His beautiful hand tinting and coloring, as well, makes its fully fledged (surviving) debut, as far as I know, and helps establish the otherworldly element Méliès loved so. The sets are intricate and serve as edifices in a physical space rather than as simply backgrounds. JOAN OF ARC one-upped CINDERELLA by a vast degree, with twelve sets and scenes making up the micro-epic tale that is Méliès’ interpretation. CINDERELLA may have been Méliès’ first stab at a grand, extravagant, and dramatic tale of any significant length, and even then only at six minutes, but JOAN OF ARC’s greater number of extras, scenes, and longer runtime truly mark the director’s attempts to broaden the scope of film.

THE CORONATION OF EDWARD VII (1902) — Georges Méliès

JOAN OF ARC wasn’t a political statement (French partisanship isn’t really drawn on whether or not Joan of Arc is a hero worthy of worship), but it was as close as Méliès would get to allegorical commentary on a specific issue outside of his more “obvious” and literal docudramas like THE DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899) and THE CORONATION OF EDWARD VII (1902), which documented those events as they were taking place in France.

JOAN OF ARC ends with Joan being burnt at the stake, as does the story of the real person, but Méliès’ film shows an apotheosis scene in which Joan ascends to heaven and joins God, angels, and saints. Méliès’ inclusion of this scene, a strikingly interpretative move to finish an otherwise by the numbers, if not brief, telling of the story of Joan of Arc, truly emphasizes her role as a martyr and French hero. And just nine years later, Joan of Arc would be beatified by the Catholic Church; in 1920, she was canonized. I’m not saying JOAN OF ARC convinced the Church that Joan of Arc should be an official saint, but I am saying that Méliès’ film represented an increasingly popular public sentiment that really began in the mid-1800s, doing so in a more subtle way than some of his other films.

Full film

Méliès never gave up his novel effects and camera tricks, but JOAN OF ARC signified a maturation of his style and themes common to his films. It even included some signature Méliès moments, in the aforementioned opening, closing, and climactic execution scenes. Otherwise, his technical prowess manifested in less fantastical ways, such as the (what we could now loosely call) medium shot during the siege scene and the attempted scaling of the castle walls that accompanied it. Ultimately, though, JOAN OF ARC was Méliès’ next big international hit following CINDERELLA; the film’s subject was obviously a popular one in France, but it was also helped along in America by Edison’s illegal bootleg dupes. JOAN OF ARC is still one of the essential works in Georges Méliès’ canon, as its titular hero called for a more thorough and thoughtful treatment from the master magician of film, evolving him into the kind of filmmaker that would produce masterpieces such as A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) and THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912).

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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