Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc came at the end of the silent era and was its crowning achievement, an extraordinarily intense portrait of psychological torment and religious stoicism. Its attraction to Adrian Utley of Portishead, creator of nervy trip-hop, is obvious. The link with Goldfrapp’s flamboyant electropop is less immediately apparent, though it too emerged in the score that Goldfrapp’s songwriter Will Gregory has written with Utley for the film, which received its London premiere at the annual Ether festival of electronic music.
The film, made in France, focuses on Joan’s inquisition and incineration at the stake in 1431. It purports to be a true story, drawn from a transcript of Joan’s ecclesiastical court trial. Dreyer, however, forsakes documentary realism for high expressionism.
Warty clerics and craggy soldiers loom like gargoyles, while the teenage Joan is shown in close-up weeping and gazing upwards in search of salvation. She was canonised by Rome in 1920, eight years before the film was made, but the Danish Dreyer portrays her as a prototype Protestant martyr, sustained by the belief that God’s will lies within the individual, not through the Church.
The score opened with the ominous pounding of kettle drums and paranoid whispered vocals by members of the Monteverdi Choir, a somewhat kitsch effect. But, with the arrival of a sinister guitar motif, the music found a menacing register.
Conducted by Charles Hazlewood, the ensemble included the choir, a brass section, two harpists and a rock string section of six electric guitarists. One of them was Utley; the classically trained Gregory sat nearby operating an electronic console. The theatricality he brings to Goldfrapp’s music came across in the score’s elements of pastiche, such as the choir’s hysterical Carmina Burana-style chanting. More importantly, the music also heightened the film’s remarkable intensity, building in pitch with guitar feedback and pounding drums as the confrontation between Joan and the Church reached its peak. By the end, as Joan was engulfed in fire, it was as if the Furies were bearing down on the auditorium.