Viggo Mortensen reveals his passion for actress Renée Falconetti, the burning star of Dreyer's Joan of Arc.
When we catch sight of the elegant Viggo Mortensen in the Parisian hotel suite where he's giving his interviews, he's at the window, his eyes dreamy, smoking a cigarette. A true cinema shot. But as soon as David Cronenberg's fetish actor (who is also a poet, musician, photographer and painter) begins to speak, the atmosphere grows much more relaxed: for a while, we could almost believe in a discussion between friends. In a permanent back-and-forth between thoughtful French and precise English, his one and only goal is to render justice to Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, this cinema classic released in 1928 that he has seen some forty times and which he has made his bedside film.
"The Passion of Joan of Arc is a very strong film, but it's above all the burning appearance of an actress: Renée Falconetti. She was a theatre actress, that's how Dreyer spotted her. She never did another film after this extremely difficult shoot and she finished her life in Argentina where she committed suicide in 1946. She's a figure who touches me even more since I myself grew up in Argentina, where her ghost and her legend are still floating around a little bit.
I discovered this film when I was 20. I didn't know very much about movies, I wasn't even an actor: I wasn't yet measuring all of Dreyer's esthetic innovation and radicalism, but it still had a crazy effect on me. The story, the way it's told, but especially her, Falconetti: her modern way of acting, her immediacy. Whatever moment you're watching the film, she's there.
There's something almost "raw" in her way of being, which has nothing to do with the fact that this is a tragedy: it could just as well have been a comedy, her inescapable presence would have been the same. We know that the shooting was very hard, Dreyer had a sadistic side in obtaining what he wanted from his actors. But the result is not only the recording of the suffering of a young woman mistreated by a director. Renée Falconetti knew very well what she was doing. Jean Seberg played Joan of Arc as well (with Otto Preminger in 1957); it was also her first experience and she almost abandoned the profession afterward. To accept this role is to say yes to a difficult voyage. And it's true that certain roles can mark you that much.
Dreyer filmed a lot in sequence shots, he was looking for moments of truth, and not only on the part of his actress: the state of shock felt by the judges, the priests (and those who play them) in front of the purity of Falconetti's emotions, it's real, it's not acted. And the way in which the film is directed is absolutely maddening, you know, the judges in the background, you in front of the screen and her in the middle. This creates the illusion that she alone is in the film, all the others around are only spectators. She is the film.
When I started acting, I leaned on performances of similar intensity, always a bit on the edge of madness: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Jessica Lange in Frances, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, Anna Magnani... All of these roles have something indiscreet, indecent. You don't necessarily need to go through a series of tearful or hysterical scenes, it can be very sober and minimal, but this impression of seeing "inside" the person remains. This exposing of emotions touched me and inspired me very much. If that was what being an actor was, then I wanted to try. Montgomery Clift used to stir up the same thing in me... But generally, yes it's true: it's women who made me want to be an actor!"