Women’s Visions: The Passion of Joan of Arc and Personal Shopper

It’d been years since I had seen The Passion of Joan of Arc; it was one of those early Criterions, checked out in the years after college, predictably enough after seeing Vivre Sa Vie. I was blown away, but for some reason, I didn’t revisit for a while. This isn’t unusual for me – it takes me years to want to revisit all but my very favorite films, where my husband could rewatch almost anything almost any time. But after the Review series finale last month, I began thinking about the ways that Forrest MacNeil function as a Joan of Arc-type figure – a total martyr to his beliefs, willing to ruin and even lose his life for the things he believes in. The thing he believes in is a stupid TV show about reviewing life experiences, and not the holy spirit, but the seed was planted.

I’m so glad I decided to rewatch with another decade under my belt. Renee Falconetti’s performance is one of the finest in all of film history – with not a single word, she conveys the brutality of the psychological – and physical – torture Joan is forced to endure at the hands of men who simply cannot believe that the word of God was revealed to a teenage girl. The bulging eyes, the trembling, everything about Falconetti’s expressive physicality reveal the depths of the betrayal Joan feels from the Church – the one institution she should be able to count on. No one in the film – except occasionally the monk played by Antonin Artaud – is a friendly figure for Joan; she is attacked and coerced and belittled at every turn. She tries to lie about her relationship with God – she wants to save herself from burning at the stake, after all – but when she tries, she is unable. She takes back her statement that would save her almost as soon as she has signed it. There’s no other way for Joan to live.

A very different kind of actress confronts a very different kind of ghost in Personal Shopper. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has recently lost her twin brother Louis, who lived in Paris (in the most beautiful house ever, can I just say – between this and Things To Come, I need to figure out how to get in on that artistic French lifestyle). Maureen is staying in France to see if she can make an otherworldly connection with Louis, as they promised one another that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. Maureen makes her living as a personal shopper to a wealthy celebrity; she spends her days at Chanel and Cartier, traveling from Paris to London and back just to pick up some dresses, and she spends many nights at Louis’ old house, trying to contact the spirit within before the new buyers will move in (again, how does one get a job as a French ghost hunter please tell me).

The disconnect between Maureen’s role in late capitalism and her belief (or non-belief, as she states several times that she’s not sure about the existence of ghosts) in the supernatural is a wide, intriguing gap, the kind most of us have to bridge in order to live. She is depressed, overwhelmed and misses her brother with her entire (damaged, quite literally) heart, and she’s willing to put up with the demands of her employer to speak with him one last time. Stewart’s best scenes are not connected to the mystery of Louis: when Maureen tries on her employer’s clothes, which is strictly forbidden, she reminds us about Kristen Stewart The Movie Star, all nervous gestures in beautiful clothes. I had not really been a fan of Stewart before this film – I started to get her in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, but Personal Shopper really brought her quiet, seemingly affectless acting home for me. Miriam Bale said it best in The Hollywood Reporter: “whether she’s dressed up or down, boldly flirting or retreating into herself, she’s always the same casual, androgynous-glamorous force of nature.”

Kristen Stewart is Renee Falconetti’s polar opposite: while Falconetti, bound by the restrictions of silent film, turns her face into a book from which you can read her innermost pain, Stewart chooses her silence, and uses quiet, deliberate moments to telegraph her grief and anguish.

Both Joan and Maureen see things that the rest of us cannot. Both women are guided by their faith, their belief in something bigger than themselves, and both women are punished for it. Violence enacted by men is a part of their lives – Joan’s execution at the stake is brutal, and incredibly hard to watch; Maureen enters her employer’s home to drop off some jewelry and finds her brutally murdered, a tense scene in which Maureen is not sure if she will be next. Maureen isn’t physically punished for her beliefs, but, like Joan, she is abandoned in her faith: Louis’ wife has moved on to a new lover (which is rich and gracefully portrayed), and Maureen’s own partner encourages her to leave Paris and come live with him.

In Personal Shopper‘s final scene, Maureen is alone in a boardinghouse in Oman, waiting for her boyfriend and his friends to return from an outing. She senses that Louis’ ghost has followed her, that she will never be rid of it until she figures out what he wants. But as she asks the ghost questions – and it slams a glass to the ground to get Maureen’s attention – she has an epiphany. “Is it just me?” she asks the empty room, without an answer. That is the question both women have at the core of their being, and both films have at their centers.


Note: This first appeared on my TinyLetter, Double Feature Preacher.


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