Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

by on January 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Jan 10 at 1:15, 2:40, 4:05, 5:30, 7:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Film Forum treats NYC to a complete Robert Bresson retrospective, Jan 6-19, followed by a one-week run of his metaphysical suspense film, A Man Escaped.


Made in between bona fide masterpieces Pickpocket and Au Hazard Balthazar, and long impossible to see, The Trial of Joan Arc has long been regarded as a failure, or Bresson’s weakest film, but critical opinion on it is beginning to change. Stay tuned for an Alt Screen feature on the film, coming soon.


Meanwhile, Melissa Anderson for the Village Voice:

Bresson’s 1962 film — the most underrated of the director’s 13 features (and, at 65 minutes, his shortest) — Tony Pipolo points out, “launched a decade devoted to female protagonists” (and the careers of Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda). By looking anew at The Trial of Joan of Arc, made in between the works widely considered Bresson’s supreme masterpieces (1959’s Pickpocket and 1966’s Au Hasard Balthazar), Delay, a 20-year-old university student at the time, emerges as one of the most perfect of the director’s “models”: a steadfast teenage saint whose stoic countenance is punctured once, at the film’s beginning, by a burst of tears.
Bresson rejected acting; he wanted his nonprofessional performers simply to be, part of his notion of film as a pure art form. The script for Joan of Arc adheres quite closely to the actual record of the trial and of the rehabilitation process 25 years later: Joan is interrogated and taken back to her cell repeatedly, the back-and-forth of the inquisition and the clang of Joan’s shackles providing the film’s rhythm. Delay, her limpid eyes frequently downcast, isn’t “unexpressive” but unsentimental; though austere, she is unwavering, resolute. In an interview with Pipolo, Delay, who would go on to write novels, narrate Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), and be elected to the Académie Française in 2000, explains that she thought of Joan “as an intrepid individual with a mission to perform.” She gave her director what he wanted, but gives audiences more: a new way to access and appreciate history’s most remarkable adolescent visionary.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) is perhaps the most extreme instance of Robert Bresson’s dedramatizing technique, exercised here in a rigorous treatment of its subject that couldn’t be further from Dreyer’s handling of the same subject […] as one of the most infrequently screened works of one of the greatest living filmmakers, it warrants a look.


Gilbert Adair for Time Out (London):

Based on the minutes of Joan of Arc’s trial, this can be seen as Bresson’s essay in sado-masochistic voyeurism. Joan (Carrez) is manacled, spied at through peepholes, genitally scrutinised, and forced (by the director) to squat on a wooden stool as if on a toilet seat. The tension generated by juxtaposing such humiliation with the serenely beautiful text (from the transcription of the trial) resolves itself in the unforgettable final image of Joan’s charred remains like a burnt-out firework.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The compression stuns: Joan the Maid (Florence Delay) swears on the Bible before her judges and protests her imprisonment, is taken to her cell and chained to the bed where she permits herself a brief sob, all under two minutes. Robert Bresson employs the original transcript in a strict reading that finds and isolates the image — principally, the charred stake after the pyre has been extinguished, the ultimate tragic stasis. We know the heroine will be burned the way we know the convict will escape in A Man Escaped, the transformative trek towards it is what Bresson is after, shot with flattening lens and cut for rhythmic gravity. Joan sits before Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau) to be quizzed about the divine voices in her head, her masculine battlefield attire and her virginity; the words are familiar and the speech is neutral, the trial is clipped, bureaucratic and overpoweringly earthbound to the soul yearning for God’s salvation. The stone walls are bare and the wooden door creaks heavily, the English voice crying “Burn the witch!” embodies a crowd, the framing is enhanced solely by the jagged peephole Cauchon and Warwick (E.R. Pratt) carve into Joan’s cell, which adds a further layer of voyeurism to their (and our) contemplation of her pious intransigence. Critical reception was appropriately obtuse — Pauline Kael couldn’t see the forest for the trees (“What’s the dog for?”), Stanley Kauffmann took a wider view and came up wanting (“Why — after Dreyer?”). The truth is that, as is the filmmaker’s wont, his picture wasn’t so much ahead of critical cycles as outside of them, suspended like the protagonist between sanctity and pride, undaunted yet utterly naked, “The sight of flames will not change my words.”


Susan Sontag in her essay “The Spirital Style of Robert Bresson”:

To eliminate suspense, at the beginning of a scene Brecht announces, by means of placards or a narrator, what is to happen. (Godard adopts this technique in Vivre Sa Vie.) Bresson does the same thing, by jumping the gun with narration. In many ways, the perfect story for Bresson is that of his last film, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc—in that the plot is wholly known, foreordained; the words of the actors are not invented but those of the actual trial record. Ideally, there is no suspense in a Bresson films.
Form in Bresson’s films is anti-dramatic, though strongly linear. Scenes are cut short, and set end to end without obvious emphasis. In Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, there must be thirty such short scenes. This method of constructing the story is most rigorously observed in Procès de Jeanne d’Arc. The film is composed of static, medium shots of people talking; the scenes are the inexorable sequence of Jeanne’s interrogations. The principle of eliding anecdotal material—in Un Condamné à Mort s’est Échappé for instance, one knows little about why Fontaine is in prison in the first place—is here carried to its extreme. There are no interludes of any sort. An interrogation ends; the door slams behind Jeanne; the scene fades out. The key clatters in the lock; another interrogation; again the door clangs shut; fadeout.


Michael Joshua Rowin for L Magazine:

Robert Bresson’s directorial career was one of perpetual distillation, obsessively spent pursuing a strict economy of means, austerity of expression, and purity of form, and at the height of his powers Joan of Arc offered a perfect historical figure through which the French perfectionist could plumb the iconoclastic asceticism not only of the 15th Century teenage soldier, but of his own uncompromising style—only Jesus Christ himself could have provided a better subject. Trial explores the confinement and execution of one of history’s legendary martyrs by paring down narrative cinema to absolute essentials, with Bresson’s de-dramatized performances and rigid, precise, and repetitious visual grammar reenacting official records of Joan’s inquisition by a kangaroo court of Papal hardliners and sympathizers to English rule.
As played with fierce resolve by Florence Delay, Bresson’s Joan is less a persecuted saint than a stoic rebel, defying her accusers’ politically motivated denunciations of her claims to direct contact with God. Systematic and institutional cruelty, whether in the form of small town pettiness or merciless capitalism, constantly proves the source of earthly corruption in the work of Bresson; here Joan is pit against a Church hierarchy whose authoritarian fear of her personal, unmediated relationship with God is chillingly evoked by the filmmaker’s insistence on expressionless acting and robotic blocking—the clergymen are less sinister than complacently soulless. Joan’s strength, meanwhile, comes through in simple yet powerful Bressonian touches: a stunning high angle opening shot of Joan’s mother’s robed legs striding down a hallway toward the courtroom (later echoed in Joan’s final march toward the stake), and in her defiant glares back at enemies peering through a chink in the wall of her cell. Thus Joan’s story, usually the repository of the most profound and embarrassing pathos, becomes in Bresson’s hands something strange, sober and subtle.



Robert Horton in a 1999 Film Comment symposium on Bresson:

Bresson spends the majority of the film alternating a medium shot of Joan, answering questions during her prosecution, with similarly neutral shots of the interrogator and the others at the trial. The ultra-spare, strictly authentic approach may limit this movie’s capacity for transcendence, but it certainly makes it a singular artifact. If Bresson brings us back to the primal simplicity of early movies, he also predicts the televised legal hearing. Watch the Congressional investigations into the matter of William Jefferson Clinton (or Iran/Contra, or Watergate), and you become mesmerized by the sameness of the never-moving camera setups. The speakers’ words accrue significance, but your eye seeks out backgrounds and details; who was that blonde behind Clinton’s lawyer, on the left of the frame, an),way? Bresson’s style magnifies those repeated details, so we may become fascinated by people who play no apparent part in the drama, who never speak, yet whose faces suggest lives, attitudes. (Imagine, after all, what is was like to watch the trial of Joan of Arc.) This quasidocumentary take on the trial scenes, by removing the reassuring blanket of melodrama, also makes us contemplate the stark mathematics of this process: if Joan doesn’t cop a plea, she will die. This beautiful, still– blooming girl will be burned at the stake until she dies. The film gives you nothing else to fall back on.
One of the great things about Bresson is the way his spartan approach throws his small epiphanies into stark relief: the sudden touch of hands, or the heart-filling moment at the end of A Man Escaped when the young escapee burbles out the emotional line about his mother. It would be hard to point to a similar moment in Joan of Arc, which may be why so many enthusiastic (indeed reverential) Bresson critics have been dismissive of the film. Still, there are frissons; just as we get used to the lulling, awful rhythm of cut– to-Joan, cut-back-to-interrogator, there will he a brief look at a monk with the most soulful, knowing, sympathetic face in the world. The movie beams at such moments.
In some way, The Trial of Joan of Arc is almost impossible to crack, and Bresson’s insistence on not dramatizing the action seems as curious as Gus Van Sant’s decision to stick religiously to the transcripts of the original Psycho. He proved it can be done, but why? One last observation before allowing this film to resume its place as one of the lesser works of a great artist. Clinical as much of the movie is, there is an undercurrent of weirdness in some of the nontrial scenes, specifically the shots of Joan being peeped at by Cauchon and Warwick through a hole in the wall of her cell. Bresson frames these views so the wall of the cell fills the edges of the frame, and the ragged hole circles Joan – a strikingly different visual approach from the careful flatness of the rest of the film. (Did somebody just mention Psycho, a contemporaneous film about another blonde who hears voices and is killed after being watched through a hole in the wall?) No explicit perversity is implied, but there it is, sticking out in a movie with no extraneous stuff. The men’s voyeuristic perspective is nothing like Bresson’s straight, open way of looking at Joan and others, and seems all the more unhealthy by contrast, another violation visited upon a pure, doomed girl.


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