Analysis of a Scene: Jeanne La Pucelle (Jacques Rivette, 1994)

*Analysis of a scene is a feature on Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I take a look at specific scenes in movies and discuss them*

Jacques Rivette smartly evades the weight of Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc by never trying to emulate or tap into the same filmmaking techniques that bluntly created one of the most devastating portraits of personhood in all of Cinema. Dreyer focused on the weary, crumbling presence of Maria Falconetti’s face in close-up, but Rivette’s picture avoids those comparisons by never actually focusing on the trial or lingering on the tragedy. Instead, Rivette opts for a portrait of Joan as a person who was persecuted not only because she was considered an idolatress, but because she dared call into question the place of women in society by subverting her gender role and dabbling in masculine presentation.

Joan giddily darts a pair of scissors across her unkempt straw-like hair in order to please god and herself. She chooses a mirror of armour, a masculinizing of vanity. Her reflection reveals an evolving self. In order for Joan to go into battle she must adopt the roles of men. If she is going to be with the men she must be a man. Her first task is to remove the long hair that paints her as feminine. She mutters to another woman who works nearby that she must look like a boy, and in an attempt to make her haircut more appropriate the woman offers to even up her look. This early scene paints a portrait that continues throughout the rest of the film, and it is one of women helping Joan achieve her goals. Whether those women know that Joan is only merely doing these things because she sees messengers of god or they envision a woman breaking barriers of gendered norms is irrelevant. They help her regardless. The same woman who cuts her hair finds her a suit of armour made from hand-me-downs of smaller boys.

Jacques Rivette shoots his adaptation of Joan of Arc with documentary style realism. There are insertions of talking head shots to deliver the exposition of the narrative. These scenes are coupled with recreations of the events certain characters discussed moments previously, and the majority of the first act is Joan’s acceptance of her task and the battles she wins for her country and for God. Along the way many men question the legitimacy of Joan’s combat and military skill, often chalking any setbacks to her gender, and whenever she succeeds men say “I’ve never seen a woman do that before” or “You’re pretty good for a woman”, to paraphrase. These exchanges of soldiers finding their notions of gender challenged further establish a theme on Joan’s breaking of binary ideas on what a woman can or cannot accomplish. Even a woman can die for her country, and her beliefs.

This particular version of Joan’s story is split into two parts and while the first film is relatively triumphant the second part brings about the inevitable tragedy that is nestled inside of this story. The tranquil pace of the first picture begins to evolve in the final hours, as that same pacing mutates from peaceful to brutally anxious. Every viewer goes into the film knowing that Joan is a martyr, but Rivette alters this narrative slightly, and presents a wrinkle on Joan’s doom that is far more powerful in day to day life than the religious persecution that colours Dreyer’s masterpiece. In Rivette’s film her martyrdom would be one of the illusion of choice for a woman who lives in an uncaring patriarchal environment.

Once Joan is captured by the English they begin a trial based around her idolatry, which Rivette only briefly engages, but the reasoning behind the trial is clearly the deep-seated misogyny behind the men who would be furious that a woman defeat them in a battle. If battle is not man’s sport anymore then what does he have left to conquer? But it’s more than that as well. There is a hatred in how easily Joan was able to try on a masculine identity, and worse how natural a fit it became on her body. The bible states in Deuteronomy that any man or woman who would wear the clothing that wasn’t associated with their gender would be considered an abomination, a disgusting thing, a wicked creature. Joan came through God, but was challenging the very notions of his perceived word. There would be no evolving of ideas on a gender binary. There would only be fire to put out an idea.

That idea would spread in subtle ways. In one digression a mother is frustrated her daughter’s hair is tangled. The girl doesn’t want to straighten or comb her hair, and after spending a short amount of time with Joan she seems to have grasped towards that freedom Joan was exhibiting in her presentation, even if that just meant letting her hair become slightly messy. This one scene is the fissure in society caused by Joan’s gendered rebellion, and in a cinematic context it is all the evidence one would need to know Joan was causing change in the ideas of the women around her. Maybe I didn’t have to spend so much time on my appearance?

Joan took the dress under the condition that she would be sent back to a prison in her home country and if she would be given female prison guards to attend to her needs. That final detail is important, because Joan knew that women, in this telling of the story, would have her back. Throughout this film women have been helping her along the way, whether that be the woman who helped her find the armour or the girl she befriended before trial. They were Joan’s true angels. When the prison guards rip her of her masculinity and force her back into the more traditional femininity that she was seen wearing in the first scenes of the film it spells her doom. As a prisoner she was left to the will of the men around her, because there would be no female prison guards. Only men who saw a vulnerable woman who they could have their way with on repeated occasions. They wrap her in chains. Her dress exposed. A metaphor for the place women held in society during Joan’s period of life. The only way to push back the rapist prison guards was to dress like a man again after they loosened her shackles. It was the only protection she had against rape. And as soon as they saw she was dressing this way again the priests decided she had rebuked god, but they weren’t acting in the law of god. They were acting in the law of man. The law of man that would say a woman should stay in her place and lest she get out of line she be put back where she belonged. For Joan that meant ash.

Female Filmmaker Project: Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Lynne Ramsay is a visual poet, more concerned with the meaning behind her images than the machinations of plot. In her work she evokes specific moods with colour palettes or lingering imagery.We Need To Talk About Kevin would douse itself in reds to symbolize a tying together of childbirth and violence. Morvern Callar focuses on textures, beauty in hyperfocused imagery of Christmas Trees and Club lighting as well as others. Ratcatcher is hazy, filled with browns and death seeps out of the sides of the picture. It is ironic that Ramsay infuses normal life giving or transitional narrative modes (Childbirth in Kevin, Adolescence in Ratcatcher) with her preoccupations of decay or destruction, but they exist in her work (Callar deals with suicide), and she is first and foremost a visual filmmaker.

The film begins with the death of a 12 year old boy in an accidental drowning due to play fighting. Ramsay uses close up shots of his hands, and the reaction of a mother who fears it is her own child through a window to convey this loss, but even more than the blunt imagery of a pale ghostly hand she created a world of rigor mortis in Glasgow. The air seems thick with poison, and the world is depleted of it’s colour. Rats infest the streets as garbage workers are on strike and the unwanted items of houses get tossed out to fill up the streets. And it is a world of seemingly endless sorrow with it’s lack of anything resembling vibrancy. Glasgow is in a transitional place in this picture with many occupants being moved around slowly into better housing, and garbage men are fighting for more significant rights to better their own lives. It mirrors James’ growing up from boy to teenager. Everything should be progressing for James and Glasgow, but Ramsay-to the film’s strength- is more interested in the current harsh conditions of the area and the guilt of having been involved in his friends death than a feel good narrative of improvement.

James isn’t the only character struggling to make it in Glasgow. He befriends a girl (Margaret Anne) early in the picture who does sexual favours on the side, but is mercilessly mocked for this reason, her weight, and her need to wear glasses. In their relationship the film finds some of it’s few happier moments. James and Margaret Anne share many significant scenes and seem to have an instant bond. She finds him more trustworthy than the boys he sometimes runs around with (as he treats her with common respect), and he doesn’t have to put up his guard and act hypermasculine to impress her. He even attempts to retrieve her glasses from a pond at one point despite his post traumatic fear of water. He has a similar relationship with his sister, and while they fight as siblings do they shelter each other from the harshness of their sometimes violent father. The humanity and character interaction of James with the various women in his life are often the films sweetest moments. The presence of the gang of boys his age who are more interested in violence, teasing and making it with girls seems foreign to him after the events of the drowning earlier in the picture. His greatest betrayal growing up is even when one of his few male friends, who had a fondness for animals, begins to exhibit violent behaviour to those creates he once loved ,and James finds his friendship with him crumbling. In these ways Ratcatcher exhibits traditional ideas of masculinity as being toxic to male development, and it backs this up with the abusive relationship he has with his father whose only interest for James is to become interested in sports despite his hatred of Football.

James does find solace though, and Ramsay gives him these happier moments by taking him to a safe zone. It would be his future housing, and doubly a look at the future Glasgow has in mind for it’s poorer residents. In these moments James explores, he loses himself in a field, and the shooting style changes from one of decay to life. The sun seems to arrive for the first time in the picture, and colour finally fills up the frame with deeper blues and rose-y golden fields. He’s like a kid here, not worrying about the future problems he’d find in adolescence and adulthood. He seems to have a way out in this luxurious house (at least compared to his old one), but the films final scenes are worrying. In a moment of inevitability he plunges himself in water and he begins to suffer the same fate as his friend. If this is to be read as metaphor then there was no way out of growing up for James, and his housing situation wouldn’t take away the grief that came from his maturing, and for Glasgow improving housing would only be a temporary fix to a rat’s paradise.