By Noel Vera
The Trial of Joan of Arc
(Proces de Jeanne d’Arc)
Directed by Robert Bresson
(Robert Bresson’s film is available for streaming on the soon-to-be-lamented USA-only Filmstruck, which will shut down by Nov. 29. It is still available though less readily on Amazon and should ideally be available on a streaming service accessible everywhere including the Philippines.)
THE first film to come to mind watching this stony ground of a picture is Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent film, a wondrous series of gigantic closeups shuffled through at speed, arguably one of the most revered and the best-known version of the story.
Robert Bresson’s response? “Grotesque buffooneries.”
Call The Trial of Joan of Arc (Proces de Jeanne d’Arc) Bresson’s more measured response. Where Dreyer was profligate in his production — he had an elaborate castle set built complete with large courtyard and torture chamber then largely ignored it, to close in on the faces — Bresson films cobblestones, heavy wooden doors, a crack in a cell wall through which light gleams, suddenly interrupted (someone steps up close to peer at Joan). Not quite true that Bresson avoids closeups but his is an oblique style: instead of Joan’s face (or — as with Dreyer — focusing almost exclusively on Joan’s face) he looks at Joan’s feet padding across the floor or her hands being cuffed with thick manacles (did they think a 19-year-old girl — embodied by the slim Florence Delay — would overpower her guards and escape?). And it isn’t true that his Joan is almost totally emotionless — early in the film, after her ankles are shackled to a massive beam, she takes a brief moment to cover her eyes and sob through gritted teeth.
Bresson like Dreyer draws upon the trial transcripts, but unlike Dreyer doesn’t prune his dialogue to focus on her visions and on her wearing men’s clothes — Joan here talks openly of a Fairy’s Tree and mandrake roots, and of her military adventures. Looking at Delay’s face you can imagine — despite the slightness of her figure — that she’s capable of wearing armor and commanding men.
The difference between Delay’s face and Falconetti’s in Dreyer’s film says nearly everything about the difference between the directors’ approach; that the girls wear a similar haircut only emphasizes the difference. Falconetti is all eyes, her oval face and plump cheeks softening the stark staring near-madness found in them (you can picture her staring straight into the sun overhead, the harsh rays burning away her retinas). Delay’s eyes are downcast almost as often as they are level, the impression given not so much of a girl demure as of a girl sullen. A rebellious daughter dragged before her stern father, if you like, forced to account for her disobedient actions.
The image of a girl defiant before male authority does resonate. The trial turns into a verbal struggle, with the panel hurling one accusation after another and Joan replying “Beware of judging me” and “I won’t accept your judgment.” Occasionally Joan steals sidelong glances at a nearby priest who seems to be giving her nonverbal prompts — Who is he? Why is he helping her? The judges notice but don’t censure the priest, or remove him from the trial — Why? Bresson doesn’t elaborate.
Bresson’s style has always been spare but this time you have to wonder if he has pushed spareness too far. He’s done adaptations of novels and memoirs — Georges Bernanos, Tolstoy, and (indirectly) Dostoevsky. Bernanos’ material proved particularly fertile — Diary of a Country Priest is a personal favorite. When he’s writing original material he’s arguably even more creative — his transposition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is, I think, audaciously brilliant, reducing the Russian author’s murderer to a mere pickpocket, yet still managing to wring the full measure of drama (and a startling eroticism) out of the felon’s story.
But the transcript of a trial conducted 600 years ago? Without descriptive prose (We have no idea what the Maid of Orleans looks like) or attempt at characterization, just what was spoken and written down? Bresson brings us just the words, unadorned, in his elliptical visual style, and, yes, it does work — eventually you tune in to the film’s verbal sparring, get some sense of the legal and theological intricacies involved, involve yourself in the drama of this 19-year-old arguing for her life before a panel of vindictive old men.
The film is perhaps not the most poignant Bresson has made up to then or since but is perhaps not meant to be. A distant echo from the past, an audio recording if you like from a surveillance microphone taped under the bishops’ table and smuggled to present day — the roughness of it, the crude imagery precisely wrought, that’s what gives this film a special poignancy.
Once Joan’s fate is sealed and she’s led to the stake, Bresson allows himself a smidgen of allusive poetry: Joan’s feet follow as the camera glides down the cobbled street, unaccountably shuffling (Is she limping? Is she perhaps acting goofy?); a leg sticks out in an attempt to trip her but she stumbles past the cruel jab. A dog lopes to the camera (a foreshadowing of Bresson’s donkey?). A pair of doves, no, the shadow of a pair of doves, flaps onto a canvas roof — presumably the one over the bishops’ heads as they watch the girl burn — flutters off again. Arguably the most austere work of an austere filmmaker, and whether you like it or not depends on whether you like the filmmaker and his style (I do) and if you like his style pushed as far as it can go.