01 August 2012

Maria Falconetti

Renée Falconetti aka Maria Falconetti (1892 - 1946) was a French actress. Though she had a long stage career and played in two other silent films, she is mostly known for her major performance in Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece La passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Renée Falconetti
French postcard by Editions Sid., Paris, no. 8038. Photo: G.L. Manuel Frères.

A House On The Champs-Élysées
Little (1.63 m.) Maria Falconetti (also Falconetti) was born Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Pantin, France in 1892. Some sources claim she was born in sermano on Corsica, but she only had a Corsican father, Pierre Falconetti, who worked in the department store Au Bon Marché. Her mother was Emilie Lucie Rose Antoinette Lacoste. At a young age her parents divorced. Falconetti was first raised by her maternal grandparents and then brought to a religious home, after a second marriage the mother took her and her brother with her again. Renée played the leading role in a school play but her theatrical aspirations were not appreciated by her family. After school, she worked for an international company which sent her to Hamburg and Liverpool. In the UK she met the much older, Jewish millionaire Henri Goldstück whose lover she became. Goldstück enabled her to take acting lessons with Maurice de Feraudy. In 1912 she started at the Paris Conservatoire d’art dramatique, where she took lessons from Sylvain – who would later be her antagonist in Dreyer’s film. In 1915 she professionally debuted on the Parisian stage with Anton Tschechov’s play Une demande en mariage/The Marriage Proposal at the Théatre de l'Odéon, where she would remain employed for three years. Her breakthrough as an actress followed with her part of Hélène in Saint-Georges de Bouhélier’s Le Carnaval des enfants (The Children's Carnival). Then followed the lead as the blind girl in the melodrama Les deux orphelines (The Two Orphans, 1917), as well as many comedies. In 1917 Falconetti also made her screen debut, in the short Le clown/The Clown, directed by her former mentor Maurice de Féraudy, who also played the lead. In 1917 Falconetti also acted in the silent film La comtesse de Somerive/The Countess of Somerive (1917, Georges Denola, Jean Kemm) starring Hélène Plet. Both roles were only secondary parts. At the end of the war, she had her own house on the Champs-Élysées. She started theatrical tours around international casinos and played in renowned Parisian theatres.

Sylvain in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc
Eugène Sylvain a.k.a. Silvain. French postcard by Ed. Cinémagazine, Paris, no. 83. Photo: Alliance Cinématographique. Publicity still for La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Suffering, Up To The Point Of Exhaustion
Renée Falconetti's stage successes were alternated with flops. She got great critical acclaim for her part in Le feu qui reprend mal (The Fire That Picked Up Badly, 1921), for which her tragedic capacities were compared to those of theatre stars like Réjane or Eleonora Duse. Falconetti earned 500 to 800 Franc per performance then, and was able to select her own parts. Moreover, she modeled Parisian ‘haute couture’ for the fashion houses. In 1923 Falconetti played opposite Harry Baur and Charles Boyer in her first cross-dressing part as Charly. After two more successes, La Fille perdue (The Lost Girl, 1923) and Le Bien-Aimé (The Beloved, 1924) she was accepted in 1924 by the Comédie-Française. Falconetti hoped thus to obtain tragic parts like those of her idol Sarah Bernhardt, but she couldn’t keep up with the fierce competition and hierarchy and became nerve wrecked, missing probes. She recovered in the countryside in Chatou and came back to the Comédie-Française with her debut there in Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville, 1924), but the play was not a critical success. In 1925 she left the Comédie-Française and focused on boulevard comedy instead, again in Charly, now at the Théâtre de l'Étoile, as well as in Claude Roger-Marx’s Simili, again opposite Charles Boyer. After that followed the theatrical adaptation of Victor Margueritte’ successful novel La Garçonne (The Hipster, 1926). In this play the Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer discover her. Dreyer was in Paris because of his successful silent comedy Du skal ære din hustru/Thou shall honor thy wife (1925, Carl Theodor Dreyer). He was invited by the Société Générale company to make a film about a historical female person. He choose the martyr Jeanne D'Arc (1412 - 1431) and was offered a budget of seven million francs to shoot the film. Dreyer selected Falconetti for the title role. More than one and a half year passed before shooting started. Dreyer used both the novel by Joseph Delteil and the original documents of the trial for his script, written with historian Pierre Champion, while he had Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo build a complex, faithful set of walls, towers, houses, a drawbridge and a church. During shooting, however, he focused on close ups of Falconetti’s face, often taken from below, as well as on sophisticated camera movements. Critics accused the filmmaker of having turned his film into still photography. All the actors, including Falconetti, didn’t wear makeup during shooting. Falconetti completely identified with the part and had her head shaved for the final scene of the execution. She was 35 years old when she played the role of 19-year-old martyr. American film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1997: "For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face--so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression." Commercially La passion de Jeane d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) was a flop, but critics loved it and today it is regarded as one of the highlights of silent cinema because of Falconetti’s performance and the artistic cinematography.

French postcard. Photo Studio G.L. Manuel Frères. Caption: 'A' Campari le délicieux apéritif' (To Campari, the delicious aperitif).

Fabulous Sum Of 10.000 Francs Per Show
Parallel to the shooting of La passion de Jeane d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Falconetti was very successful with an adaptation of Alfred de Musset and George Sand’s drama Lorenzaccio (1927) at the Theater of Monte Carlo, later on it continued at the Théâtre de la Madeleine. Directed by René Blum, Falconetti played the male lead, just like Sarah Bernhardt had done at its premiere in 1896. Another success was La Dame aux camélias/Camille (1928), in which she interpreted another role made famous by Bernhardt. In 1928 Falconetti's longtme companion, the 73-years-old Goldstück died in a car accident. In his will he only left money to Falconetti’s daughter, not to his lover. So Falconetti’s mother Lucie Lacoste managed the money, despite Falconetti’s attempts to fight the will. She stayed away from the screenings of Dreyer’s film, where she was presented as Maria or Mlle (mademoiselle - miss) Falconetti. The premiere of the film received protest from the Catholic church. Falconetti's long cherished wish to start her own theatre was always refused by Goldstück. After hiring the Théâtre Femina twice to stage two plays there in 1928-1929, she managed to obtain her own theatre in 1929, the Théâtre de l'Avenue, but the theatre was a flop and it ruined her financially. She sold her house in Paris and her estate near Compiègne and moved to Switzerland, only rarely returning to perform in Paris in her former theatrical successes Lorenzaccio and La Dame aux camélias and in a theatrical performance around Jeanne d’Arc (1934), staged by Saint-Georges de Bouhélier. Her last performances were in the Parisian revue Le bœuf sur le toit and in Louis Jouvet’s staging of Jean Giraudoux La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu/The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, both in 1935. For the latter play, in which Falconetti played Andromache, she obtained the fabulous sum of 10.000 francs per show. Afterwards she retired to Switzerland again, lived for a year in Rome in 1937 but her extraordinary style of living raised her debts up to 400.000 Swiss francs in 1940. When the Germans invaded Paris, she tried to emigrate to South America with her son, but had to wait until 1942 to obtain a valid visa. After having spent all of her savings in Rio, she moved to Argentina, where she survived by singing, acting and teaching, supported by the local French. Rumor is that by then Falconetti was heavily overweight and undertook a crash diet, but eventually this killed her and she died in Buenos Aires in 1946. Her body was taken to France and buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. Renée Falconetti herself had become mother of Hélène Falconetti, who was mainly raised by her grandmother Lucie Lacoste. In 1931 Falconetti had a son who was raised by her in Switzerland and travelled with her to South-America. Falconetti went to court to have the father recognizing his son and paying for him as well. Falconetti had affairs with various men, a.o. Saint-Georges de Bouhéliers and Charles Boyer. In 1987 her daughter Hélène Falconetti released a double biography on her mother and her own son, the actor Gérard Falconetti (1949 – 1984).

Scene from La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Source: ChristophMahler (YouTube).

Scene from La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Source: Melmoth (YouTube).

Sources: Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com), Wikipedia (English, French and German) and IMDb.


Bunched Undies said...

I will never forget her performance as Joan. Her face radiated such goodness and mysticism. It is good to learn more about her with this post.

Bob of Holland said...

Thanks, you're right. I saw the film for the first time on TV at night as a teenager. I had put off all the lights in my parents living room, and then there was all that radiating light that came from the screen. A hallucinating experience. I loved it, and still love this incredible film.