Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc)

Directed by Robert Bresson

"Are you in God's grace?"
"'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

One of the most frequent images in Robert Bresson's Procès de Jeanne d'Arc is of somebody peeking through a hole. We are presented with a stone wall, then we see an eye poking out of it. Then, a point of view shot that frames Joan of Arc through the small hole. These shots are repeated over and over again, but I wonder how many people understand their purpose? My guess is that they establish a frame of reference from which the audience is supposed to view the movie: as a peeping hole into an historical event. For we know that Joan of Arc was a real person. We know that in 1412, a girl named Jeanne d'Arc was born in Domrémy, France. We know that she believed that she was guided by God to lead the French army against the British in the Hundred Year's War. We also know that under the orders of King Charles VII she ended the seige at Orléans in only nine days. And finally, we also know that on May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake by the English. But what do we truly know about Joan of Arc? We do not know what she looked like. She was burned at the stake three times so that there would be no remaining body parts that could be venerated as relics. We don't know anything about her except for the records of her trial and rehabilitation that have miraculously survived the wears of time. It is from this manuscript that Robert Bresson based his screenplay for this movie. And it from his movie that we get what could be the most authentic peek into the life of the great Joan of Arc.

Of course, saying so will undoubtedly raise calls of blasphemy from many circles. For most, the supreme cinematic representation of Joan's story would be Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), featuring a lead performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti that many consider to be the greatest ever captured on film. But understand, I am not challenging the supposed superiority of this film. Notice the titles of the two films: Dreyer's in the Passion of Joan of Arc. Bresson's is the Trial of Joan of Arc. While Dreyer and Falconetti may have created one of the greatest films ever made, it focuses on Joan. Everything in the film is designed to replicate Joan's internal turmoil: the spare, yet expressionist sets speak to her sense of isolation and unfamiliarity. The almost suffocating use of facial closeups emphasize the emotions of the characters. Falconetti's performance speaks more to the ideal or Joan of Arc: a brave martyr ready to die for her God and country. But these qualities that enthralled the cinematic world were the same things that made the film so repulsive to Robert Bresson. The performances were not inspired, but 'grotesque buffooneries.' They did not represent reality, but the interpretations of reality as put forth by Dreyer and Falconetti. How are we supposed to know whether or not Joan shed bitter tears during her trial? How are we supposed to know how she acted, how she responded, or how she faced her death? All we have is a transcript of her trial; a mere carbon copy of words and deeds over five hundred years old. So what is a director who wants to make a film about it supposed to do? Embellish the past like Dreyer did? Or should he perhaps try to restrain himself to creating a movie that strips away all dramatics, fanfare, and possible historical inaccuracies?

As one can guess, Bresson chose the latter option, and the result is a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. Instead of experienced actors, Bresson worked with non-professional actors. Instead of letting them 'act' Bresson would have them do take after take until all emotion or emphasis was stripped from his actors. Instead of choosing daring and exciting camera angles and tricks, Bresson uses an extremely minimalistic filming style. All of this leads to an organic film experience that feels a bit like a documentary. And therein is the goal of Bresson's work: to create a film that as accurately depicts history as possible. Since we can't know how Joan of Arc behaved during her trial, Bresson had his leading actress, Florence Delay, go through the motions of the trial and deliver the lines as curtly as possible. The courtroom scenes are merely a relay of questions and answers. There are no emotional tears in the courtroom. In fact, the only time we see her cry is near the beginning of the film when she is alone in her prison cell. Bresson only lingers on that shot for a few seconds. The purpose was to establish that she was sad at the start of the trial, so there was no need to linger on it.

But what of the story itself? Well, if Bresson really did stick to the original courtroom transcripts, then we are presented with a portrait of a fascinating woman. We know that in real life Joan was illiterate. But if one studies her answers, it shows that she possessed untold depths of knowledge and logic. She manages to answer all of her interrogators' questions without betraying herself, her king, or her God. It calls to mind the story of Jesus and the coin which can be found in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12: 13-17, and Luke 20: 19-26. The story goes that the Pharisees sent people to trick Jesus into saying something that he could be arrested for. So, they approach Jesus and ask him whether or not they should pay taxes. If he said no, then he could be arrested for disloyalty to the Throne. If he said yes, it could be perceived as blasphemy since the coins had Caesar's image on it. Jesus' answer was to ask for a silver coin. He asked whose image was on it. The Pharisees said that it was Caesar. And then the famous response: 'So give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' The innate brilliance behind Jesus' answer was that it didn't constitute one of the two loaded answers. Instead, he gave a reasonable answer that satisfied both parties. Coming back to Joan of Arc now, she is frequently asked questions where a 'yes' would make her a heretic and a 'no' would label her a traitor. And yet she manages to give answers that simultaneously support her and protect her from her adversaries. When asked whether or not she was in God's grace, she simply responded, 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.'

It is from these answers and from Joan's actions that the audience begins to draw their own conclusions concerning her. And that is the genius behind Bresson's work: in stripping away all embellishments, the audience can discern their own ideas about Joan and her supposed divinity. Where Dreyer insists, Bresson suggests. Where Dreyer has chaos, Bresson has control. Where Dreyer seeks to inflame emotion, Bresson seeks to quietly mediate on this great woman. The audience may leave Dreyer's film with tears or a renewed religious conviction. But audiences will most likely leave Bresson's film with more questions. By showing us the bare minimum, Bresson has introduced us to a character of impossible strength and power. By stripping away all of the extraneous cinematic language, Bresson has given us the closest look into the life of that glorious saint that we will probably ever get.



  1. Watched a bit of it on youtube to compare to "Passion of Joan of Arc"; your assessment is very acurate. I especially liked the flat monotone with which someone yells "Death to the witch!" in Part I.

  2. Yeah, I know. I just finished watching "L'Argent" today. I have now seen every Bresson film!

  3. I thought your review was very well done and would be valuable to the visitors of my large Joan of Arc website MaidOfHeaven.com so I added a link to it at:
    Joan of Arc Book, Movie, Music Reviews

  4. Oh wow, thank you so much! If you have any requests, I would be honored to write about them!

  5. Nicely done. Your observation about the difference in perspectives clear from the very titles is perceptive. The buffooneries are not on Joan's part since she is facing death and a supreme trial of faith. The inquisitors are caricaturized but then it's silent cinema. Bresson in his characteristic style gives no less powerful a portrayal. I've reviewed both in my blog (see sidebar under Bresson).

  6. I'll definitely check it out. Thanks!