The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Florence Delay
My Rating: ★★★★, or 8/10
In Short: Sharp actors give lifeless performences in this intriguing historical re-enactment
The protagonists in Robert Bresson movies are a fair mixture of male and female. But it is when his heroes are women (in 5 of his 13 films, including this one, Les anges du peche, Les dames du bois de boulogne, Mouchette and Un femme douce) that we seem to connect with them the most, sympathise with them and feel their emotions more clearly. Bresson’s female characters, while acting in the same style as his male ones, are infinitely more interesting, and I think this is not an accident.
The Trial of Joan of Arc is Bresson’s twist on the famous historical trial and execution of one of religion’s most well-known martyrs. Joan of Arc’s most famous representation in cinema was by Marie Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The most gaping difference between the two films is emotion. Though silent, Dreyer’s film captures raw emotion in every frame. Bresson chooses a different approach: if there are emotions at all in this movie, they don’t stand out. Some say this makes it more difficult to connect with the characters, but I disagree. By turning his actors into “models” and telling them not to act or convey any emotion at all, he does not “zombify” them but turns them into normal people just like us, making their situation, however drastic, seem less huge and perhaps as normal a thing as we’d face any day. Every detail is shot and presented in the most minimalist, unparticular way possible.
Many have issues with this, and fair enough, but I simply love it. It is what makes Bresson stand out like no other filmmaker, and The Trial of Joan of Arc is one of the best examples of Bresson’s paradoxical rule: make tragedy even more tragic by shooting it as an event that is anything but tragic. Joan’s inevitable death at the end of the film is inarguably terrible and tragic, but Bresson plays it without soaring emotional orchestras of music or loud screams of anguish. Every detail is spare, lifeless and thus automatically bleak. Bresson stands as one of cinema’s ultimate rebels, spitting at the common directors that do everything in their power to make action sequences, frightening horror revelations or sudden deaths “emotional.” Bresson’s “lifeless” filmmaking is somehow more real than that of any other filmmaker of his time.
As was gradually becoming the custom of Bresson (though wouldn’t really be prevalent until his later work), he tends not to use closeups of faces to convey to the audience how the person is feeling. His actors don’t “feel,” so even if he did use closeups more often there would be nothing to look at. Bresson keeps his distance, and in doing so makes the audience feel even more further from the characters and unable to help them in their time of strife. It’s discomforting, but it’s effective. Another interesting detail is that Bresson decided to give his heroine a hairstyle that wouldn’t be invented for another 500 years. Why? Apparently it was to make the audience connect with her more. Yes, Bresson doesn’t want us to feel too close to her, but he also didn’t want to alienate the audience completely.
That brings me to a note you may already have picked up on: if you are new to Bresson, this is not the ideal start at all. It is the first of a few scattered films that are very difficult to watch if you’re not adjusted to his style (the others are Mouchette, Lancelot du Lac and particularly L’Argent). Those new to him will feel uncomfortable, moreso than his earlier work. Considering that all of his films up to 1966’s Au Hasard Balthazar are visibly Bressonian but not anywhere near as inaccessible, The Trial of Joan of Arc (made in 1962) seems almost like a blip in the radar. Indeed, few people acknowledge it among his work (I know I myself used to jump from Pickpocket to Au Hasard), but it is an important one. It is one of the darker, colder films where the characters seem so distant and different to us, but yet when we take a step closer we see they are just simplified versions of the everyday person, stumbling helplessly on endless obstacles in their soon-to-end lives.
Previous films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche(1943)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)