Just when you think James Franco can’t get any more pretentious, he finds a way to raise the threshold. Take his latest project. No, it’s not reviewing Man of Steel, though that was pretty darn pretentious. It’s a 15-minute, dialogue-free film he’s directed for Gucci called La Passione. It imagines the degradation and judgment of a gorgeous supermodel until she’s finally burned at the stake. Franco says that it was inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. I suppose in that it features a woman burning at the stake, preceded by said woman staring purposefully off into space for long stretches of time, it is like The Passion of Joan of Arc — if Dreyer had included more cleavage, heavier eye shadow, longer lashes, and a wind machine to tousle Maria Falconetti’s hair for full fashion-shoot effect.
Mixing religious and sexual imagery as deftly as a Madonna video, La Passione shows Franco knows how to hit all the right buttons. Some guy wields a whip, recalling the scourging of Christ, but he's obviously wearing BDSM attire. Two women bathe each other — one with Hebrew characters tattooed on her arm! — to Baptismal and titillating effect. He even has the ATL Twins — the identical Spring Breakers siblings who do everything together, including have sex — make an appearance, to, I assume, form a symbolic Holy Trinity with himself. All the dudes, symbolic I suppose of the British and Church forces that condemned Joan to the stake, are dressed in tuxes. Because you may be participating in a barbaric execution, but there’s no reason why you can’t be stylish. They don’t call it a “show trial” for nothing.
Like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Franco’s symbolic Joan is deprived of her clothing of choice. But instead of being made to wear female peasant costume instead of male armor, she’s stripped down to lingerie. Which is unfortunate, because, as the pyre engulfs her, the flames are supposed to be the only thing that are hot. But I suppose, even if it’s not the Joan we need, each generation gets the Joan we deserve. Shakespeare imagined a lunatic Joan, Dreyer one of transcendent spirituality. Leelee Sobieski gave us a feminist Joan. And where Robert Bresson envisioned Joan as a political prisoner, James Franco has remade her into a prisoner of fame, stripped down to nothingness by a rapacious media culture.
But in the end, it’s really subtlety that gets burned.
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