THOUGH OFTEN OVERLOOKED, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) might be my favorite Robert Bresson film, and Florence Delay, who plays Joan and who went on to become a respected novelist in France, my favorite Bresson lead.
At the time of its release, The Trial was received as a disappointment by Bresson’s admirers and skeptics alike, and this negative reception focused primarily on the performance of Delay, a young Sorbonne student whom Bresson selected as his “model” for the Maid of Orleans (deeply distrustful of theatrical traditions, Bresson preferred to call his players models rather than “actors”). Susan Sontag, in an otherwise enthusiastic essay on Bresson anthologized in Against Interpretation, felt that the director’s collaboration with Delay had reached “the limit of the unexpressive. There is no acting at all; [Delay] simply reads the lines. It could have worked. But it doesn’t—because she is the least luminous of all the presences Bresson has ‘used’ in his later films.” Persistent Bresson un-believer Pauline Kael felt that Delay’s Joan was like “a philosophy student taking an oral examination for which she’s overprepared.”
Even Bresson’s cameraman Léonce-Henri Burel was critical of the director’s handling of Delay. “Here we had this sweet, simple, charming girl with the most marvelous beautiful eyes,” he recalled in a 1998 interview with James Quandt, “and Bresson would never let her look up at the camera. Never. She always had to look down, even when she was answering the judges.” Burel thought that Bresson’s direction of Delay made her Joan look “shifty,” which is true. In Bresson’s aphoristic treatise on the cinema, Notes on Cinematography, he writes of his dislike for Carl Dreyer’s direction of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a performance of palpable suffering in which Joan’s gaze is forever rolling upwards, dramatically beseeching her God with huge, hallucinating eyes: “For want of truth, the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to draw tears.” Bresson wanted his Joan to be more human, more unknowable, more defiant—and that she is. That and much more.
Top: Florence Delay as Joan of Arc. Bottom: The tragic heroes of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967), the latter played by Nadine Nortier.
BRESSON’S FOLLOW-UP FILMS to his Joan of Arc movie, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967), set a new bar for both formal excellence and gut-punching empathy in the cinema. I’ve seen them only once apiece yet they remain incredibly vivid in my mind, and I don’t think I could easily watch them again. The fates of the little girl Mouchette and the donkey Balthazar slaughtered me inside, and I think I only need to be slaughtered like that once. But I’ve seen The Trial of Joan of Arc four times now, and it only gets more suggestive, exciting and ambiguous every time I watch it. It’s a “cold” film, if you like, but a film to return to repeatedly, a film filled with secrets. It’s not going to slaughter you, but it will play around with your head.
Bresson’s Trial runs only 65 minutes, but it’s packed with fleeting, obscure, and sometimes subliminal associations. Over the sound of bells, Bresson begins his movie with a tracking shot of a woman’s black shoes under a heavy black dress as she marches screen left. Bresson then focuses on the woman’s back as she kneels, supported by two male hands. When she begins to talk, we hear that it’s Joan’s mother, speaking up for her dead daughter. The credits start and they play out under a steady drumbeat while Bresson holds on the mother’s back, but he does a series of dissolves so that the male hands don’t change position but keep moving slightly. We have no way of knowing who these hands belong to, but in the published screenplay, Bresson states that they belong to Joan’s brothers. Thus the dissolves suggest…what? That these brothers are as holy as Joan? As slippery?
A post-credits title card tells us that the film is based on the actual trial records, both the so-called Trial of Condemnation, which led to Joan being burned at the stake, and the posthumous Trial of Rehabilitation, which led to her being canonized. “My name is Joan. I am nineteen,” we hear her say, and then we see her manacled hands as she places them on an open Bible. When she takes a seat to start answering her judge’s questions, we get our first look at Delay’s Joan. Her hair isn’t close-cropped like the standard image of Joan of Arc, but ear-length; it’s the haircut of a girl from 1962, almost a Patty Duke-type flip. The style places this Joan firmly in the present day of that period.
Delay’s face is bizarrely insinuating at times. She looks like the toughest of tough cookies, a girl given to sneering and mockery. But that’s only when she’s staring at her judge’s straight-on; when she breaks this gaze and looks down, which she does throughout the film (the repeating trope of Bresson’s direction that so angered his cinematographer), she suddenly looks trapped, vulnerable and unbalanced, even subtly crazy. The entirety of this film is based on the increasingly drastic back-and-forth shifts between the severity of Delay’s unbroken eye contact with her judges and the youthful, tortured expressions she springs when she looks down at the floor. In between these extremes are all kinds of things that often seem unclassifiable: fleeting gestures, private thoughts, inscrutable feelings.
Delay has the kind of face that seems open to the camera, and the camera gets all kinds of contradictory things from it, which is what’s maddened a lot of viewers of this movie. Personally, I never get tired of trying to figure out the sometimes wildly mismatched signals I’m getting from that face. Why was Delay’s work as actor/model so criticized at the time? I think it might have to do with the fact that Bresson had worked with very similar male models in his last three, critically acclaimed films—Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959)—and now here he was not only using a girl but having her play Joan of Arc, one of the most testing roles for any actress. I think Delay was held to more conventional standards of actorly expressiveness than the opaque men who had played a priest (Claude Laydu), a prison escapee (François Leterrier) and a pickpocket (Martin LaSalle).
All three of those men are perfect for the uses they are put to by Bresson in those three films, but to me, their perfection as models starts to get a little monotonous by the midway point of the films. They are there in the frames, and that’s it; they are the epitomy of grace and the emptiness that grace is supposed to fill. Delay is an odd woman out searching for grace at every moment of her 65-minute trial. From my vantage point, Kael’s specific criticism of Delay is exactly wrong; she is like a student (that’s what Delay herself was at the time), but she’s constantly looking around and down to the floor as if she’s unsure of what her answers might be. And she looks even more flustered and unaccountable on screen because Bresson has placed her in relation to Michel Herubel as Isambert, the monk who silently advises Joan throughout the trial, and Herubel looks just like the dark-haired, saucer-eyed little heroes of Bresson’s last three pictures. Up against the serene Herubel, Delay looks as awkward as Bresson’s Mouchette (Nadine Nortier), and we don’t expect our Joan of Arcs to be awkward.
When she goes back to her cell after that first interrogation, Joan lightly kicks the door back open before her feet are re-shackled, then bursts into girlish tears; this exactly expresses the tough-shit saint vs. skittish-scared girl dichotomy in Delay’s performance. What I find so touching and unusual about Delay in this film is that her face is so hard and prickly and withholding in so many ways, yet this doesn’t seem willful or intended; it’s just something her face has, attitudes that it cannot help but fall into. Not once does this face do something expected or conventionally legible on emotional or intellectual terms. It’s a face in perpetual flux, and to me this flux is very suspenseful and even spiritually elevating, more truly beautiful than the Franciscan passivity of Bresson’s three preceding male leads. It’s such a vulnerable face at times, but at other times, it couldn’t be more guarded or self-sufficient (when a rock gets tossed through Joan’s cell window, Delay picks it up and tosses it aside, and a caption under her face at this moment could read, “Whatever!”). It’s a face guaranteed to infuriate Joan’s judges, and, ironically enough, it also infuriated the critical judges of Bresson’s film.
Falconetti’s Joan is of course more directly poignant or “used to draw tears,” as Bresson wrote; she’s basically static, martyred and not of this earth. Ingrid Bergman’s turn as Joan in Roberto Rossellini’s little-seen Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954) is memorably exultant; there is no more joyful moment in cinema than when Bergman’s Joan welcomes her fate, throws her arms up and cries, “I’ll burn up like a candle!” In Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), which is based on the George Bernard Shaw play, a pre-Breathless Jean Seberg earnestly stands as the most commonsensical and juicily beddable filmic Maid of Orleans. Delay’s troubling, androgynous Joan seems to have influenced Sandrine Bonnaire’s performance in Jacques Rivette’s two-part epic Joan the Maid (1994), which in many ways feels like a continuation and clarification of Delay’s teeter-totter between warrior surety and nervous, youthful fear. (Let’s all forget about Milla Jovovich’s “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe she’s Joan of Arc!” Maybelline-commercial Maid in Luc Besson’s The Messenger , where Dustin Hoffman is actually billed as “The Conscience”!).
Clockwise from top-left: Maria Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg and Sandrine Bonnaire.
BRESSON’S TRIAL is a dialogue film in the strictest sense: a flow of words sustained by the hardest of hard cuts between reverse shots of Joan and her chief inquisitor, Bishop Cauchon (the painter Jean-Claude Forneau, who has a pitiless look). In Preminger’s objective, distanced Saint Joan, you can always see just how large the spaces are around Seberg’s free-spirited, nubile Maid, but in Bresson’s movie, Delay’s Joan is chained-up and mulishly stubborn and we can’t tell what might be around her; this is a concentrated, subjective cinema where there doesn’t seem to be any definable off-screen space.
Cauchon and some of the other judges are always watching Joan in her cell through a peep hole in the wall, which is highly suggestive of Norman Bates staring at Marion Crane before he stabs her in the shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). We keep hearing English voices crying, “Death to the witch!” and Bresson accelerates these cries and the controlled frenzy of all the judges at that peephole until it becomes very clear that the condemnation of Joan had a basis in frustrated sexuality. As Joan tries to rest in her cell, Bresson does a hard cut to a soldier’s hat falling on the floor, and this image does several things: it gets across the threat of rape, but it also serves as a reminder to us of Joan’s victories on the battlefield. Her virginity obsesses the men yet her reported soldierly prowess intimidates them, and they can’t bear to touch her. “I’d thrash her with pleasure,” says one of them at the spy hole, but her male clothes put them off anything more directly sexual.
And Bresson reminds us that there was money involved. “We bought her at a great price,” says Warwick (the petulant E.R. Pratt, who looks a little like Hitchcock). Money and fear trump sexual desire, but, like a cinema audience, the judges can stare at Joan all they like before they burn her. Delay’s Joan is tortured on the rack, but it doesn’t seem to faze her any more than being stared at does—she knows when she’s being watched and “performs” for the judges with punk rock disdain in her face and movements (it’s a little like seeing Patti Smith play Joan).
The only fumbled scene is the one where Joan has to briefly recant her position, out of fear of the fire. This is generally a problem area for any actress playing Joan of Arc, and Delay is the most lost of all here. She has been directed to close her eyes and bow her head to the side, a purely mechanical gesture that expresses nothing. But Bresson makes up for this misstep with a wondrously eccentric ending. When she hears that she has been condemned to burn, Delay throws her body back on her bed like a self-dramatizing teenager, and Bresson makes sure that we hear the impact her body makes, a resounding thump. We see Joan’s bare feet moving screen right (the opposite direction of her mother’s feet in the first scene) as she minces her way to the stake—is the ground hot? Is that why she seems to be jumping her way up there?
One of the men standing on the sidelines tries to trip Joan up, but of course she manages to dodge him. This might seem like a too-literal visualization of Joan’s relation to her judges, but Bresson gives it that extra oomph of cruelty he was so capable of visualizing. I remember being startled the first time I saw what Bresson himself looked like. I expected some picture of holy cuteness, like the leads in his fifties films—but oh no, to the contrary! He looked exactly like Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955), with a mouth full of large teeth that might bite you.
A dog watches Joan as she is tied to the stake. In an interview with Yves Kovacs, Bresson said that this shot was meant to express that the animal knew something was wrong, and it does look like this doggie is doing a sort of double-take for the camera. (God is dog spelled backwards?) As Joan burns, Bresson cuts to a couple of doves fluttering their wings against a transparent white canvas roof, and this, to me, is his masterstroke. It’s an intuitive choice that exactly expresses what’s happening to Joan as she burns, and it isn’t a visual choice that I can imagine any other director making. It’s both peculiar and just right, just like Delay’s face, and just like this puzzling and seriously under-valued film.
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) is playing at Film Forum, Tuesday January 10th, as part of their Robert Bresson retrospective.