16 July 2009

THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC / PROCES DE JEANNE D'ARC (Dir. Robert Bresson, 1962, France)

Saint Joan of Arc - executed by burning on 30 May 1431.

Strip away all the elements that embellish historical truth and needlessly help dramatise it for the sake of narrative and genre, and what you are left with are simply the facts. Now to merely film such historical facts in this case would mean having to relabel yourself as both a historian and documentarian. However, such a delicate temperament and understated attitude to cinema requires a certain discipline which not many film makers can lay claim to as a discernible quality. French film maker Robert Bresson's interpretation of the saintly figure of Joan of Arc chooses to interpret the extraordinary journey from peasant girl to liberator by relying upon the transcripts of the real trial and her subsequent execution. It comes of little surprise that both Dreyer and Bresson made their own films on the subject, aspiring to an approach which film critic turned film maker Paul Scharder labelled as transcendental:

'Transcendental style seeks to maximise the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and finally, rationalism'.

- Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader, 1972, University of California

Schrader's groundbreaking study of Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson may have dropped off the academic radar (out of print last time I checked on Amazon) but I doubt if a more intellectually demanding and accessible study of Bresson exists for those who want to penetrate beneath this austere and enigmatic French auteur. Persecuted by religious groups, tortured and wrongfully executed, Joan of Arc's benign defiance makes her the ideal Bresson character as she is not just a humanist, but also a martyr and someone who chooses to suffer in silence. The precise control over which Bresson directed his actors, many of whom were chosen on the appropriateness of their looks for the role rather than acting prowess, is evident in the humility of the performance. Similarly like Francois Leterrier in 'A Man Escaped' and Martin LaSalle in 'Pickpocket, Florence Delay's performance as Joan of Arc manifests itself through the deliberate sense of restraint; the delayed glances, the eyes which seem to be permanently transfixed on the ground in front, the barely audible voice, and perhaps most potently, the internalisation of an anger that becomes a source of empathy. Bresson's cinema is a humbling one.


  1. Although this is clearly not my favorite Bresson movie (Has he ever made a bad movie?!), it was surely rewarding.

    But my only problem with the movie is the effect that it produced. the other Bresson films (Even Including Lancelot of the lake) were so much connected to this world, and I should say, yet transcendental. The effect of this "mystifying" was palpable.

    For me as you said, this became slightly tilted to the "historian" side. But nevertheless, this was one of the last Bresson films I saw and was already acquainted with the director's style and themes.

    I always had the feeling that both Dreyer and Bresson influenced each other. I haven't seen many Dreyer films, but Ordet had a shade of Country Priest and Gertrud too, somewhere seemed Bressonian. What do you think?

  2. I've always found the work of Dreyer slightly aloof and difficult to engage with - I think his delight in formalism seems to alienate me as a spectator. However, yes, I do agree, it is problematic to say if any of Bresson's films could be considered minor works but perhaps Joan of Arc is clearly not in the league of his undisputed masterpieces like Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette. Nevertheless, I too have not seen many Dreyer films so my opinion is going to naturally gravitate towards Bresson. And yes, I doubt if he has ever made a bad movie - I think one can find something unique and different in each of his films.

  3. This is an excellent film about Joan of Arc and one of my favorites.