The Trial of Joan of Arc
1962 // France // Robert Bresson
Considered retrospectively as the most overlooked and underrated films by Robert Bresson amidst his 13-feature oeuvre, The Trial of Joan of Arc is also his shortest, and perhaps the most formalistic work. The story of Joan “The Maid of Orléans” is no stranger to even non-western contemporary viewers since her story has been repeatedly adapted in plays, novels and films, the most renowned visualization is undeniably Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent treatment The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). As Dreyer did in his adaptation, Bresson utilizes the historical documents of the trial and follows “faithfully” to the manuscript. There is no obtrusive sentimentality or manipulative melodramatics one might find in commercialized adaptions; and unlike the expressionistic version by Dreyer, there is no eccentric camera angle or disorienting compositions. Bresson’s vision is devoid of explicit illustration and theatricality, it is plain and sparse and aims at conveying the internal emotion through mise-en-scène and modelling.
Again, Bresson employs non-professional actor, models as he called, in his cinematography. Florence Delay, a modern French student, embodies the French saint Jeanne d’Arc in a sense of anti-authoritarianism and determination, yet imbued with vulnerability simultaneously. Delay’s Joan would be the last Bresson’s protagonists to overcome the desperation and achieve spiritual triumph, whereas the subsequent ones, starting from Balthazar and Marie in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), are suffering with the absence of that power. The expressionless “being” (instead of “acting”) by Delay evokes the active contemplation from the spectators on her state of mind. As the story is framed as a flashback, a recall, by starting with the Trial of Rehabilitation in which Joan’s mother appealed for her daughter’s injustice execution. The subsequent scenes can be viewed as a reconstruction of the past from the perspective of the second trial, a reconstruction based on the testimony written, and distorted with a bias, against Joan.
The trial section can be divided into two parts which intercut one and other. It starts with the public hearing where Joan answers question after question without an apparent continuity, as an attempt from the prosecutors to exasperate the defender and induce inconsistencies from her answers. The use of shot-countershot constitutes the majority of interrogation, with Joan frequently casts her eyes downward, presumably to reflect her situation and gather her thoughts, before directly glances at her interrogators with a determined answer. Occasionally, she looks briefly to her right in the direction of the Brother Isambart, one of her spiritual advisers who would raise his finger slightly as a warning of crucial questions. There are audience, unnamed people and faces sitting behind Joan, while randomly some Englishmen would shout “Burn the witch!” offscreen. The back and forth interrogation is purposefully difficult to follow, thus imitating the tensed and disorientating scenario Joan experienced.
At times, the interrogation would be transited to Joan’s private cell. Still bounded in chain, Joan is often positioned and shot through a spy hole where authorities would peer into her cell and exchange thoughts in whispering. Apparently Joan is aware of the presence of her voyeurs, as at one point she turns her head and glances directly to the camera, as know as the spying hole. In reverse, the voyeurs are only visible with their eye and partial facial feature through the spy hole, and their identity could only be deduced by their use of language. The shot through the spy hole alludes to the door’s peephole in Fontaine’s prison cell in A Man Escaped (1956), in which Fontaine peeps through the hole to confirm the exterior situation before continuing his meticulous prison break, thereby the peephole is presented as a pragmatic and consequential tool. In comparison, the spy hole in Joan of Arc evokes voyeuristic and sadomasochistic undertones, in view of the male figures spying on a male-dressed virgin.
For all Bresson’s intention to differentiate his cinematography from cinema, the “filmed theater” as he described, Joan of Arc is st times over-saturated. The spareness of tone, the immobile and fixed camera, the expressionless and minimialistic performance, and most importantly, the ellipsis of many scenes, like the examination of virginity and the presumably harassment from the soldiers after Joan’s submission to the authority which could be directly responsible for her recantation and subsequently her death by burning. The ambiguity perhaps reflects the historical record authentically, as often they are incomplete, but it relies too much efforts from the spectators who, like Joan of Arc, is exhausted in communicating to the inexplicable world. The film ends with Joan’s body disappeared in the smoking stake, partly implying her body is incorruptible, partly transcending her to sanctity. Meanwhile, drumroll heard over the opening credits recurs, it is arguably the only music you could hear in the film, serving as the closing curtain of both the film, as well as Joan’s short but ultimately triumphant life in the immoral world.