The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Florence Delay (Carrez), Jean-Claude Fourneau
By Greg Klymkiw
"I had a daughter born in lawful wedlock who grew up amid the fields and pastures. I had her baptized and confirmed and brought her up in the fear of God. I taught her respect for the traditions of the Church as much as I was able to do given her age and simplicity of her condition. I succeeded so well that she spent much of her time in church and after having gone to confession she received the sacrament of the Eucharist every month. Because the people suffered so much, she had a great compassion for them in her heart and despite her youth she would fast and pray for them with great devotion and fervor. She never thought, spoke or did anything against the faith. Certain enemies had her arraigned in a religious trial. Despite her disclaimers and appeals, both tacit and expressed, and without any help given to her defense, she was put through a perfidious, violent, iniquitous and sinful trial. The judges condemned her falsely, damnably and criminally, and put her to death in a cruel manner by fire." - Statement by Isabelle Romee, Joan of Arc's mother, made prior to the commencement of the Catholic kangaroo court proceedings against her daughter.
Go ahead. Call it sacrilegious if you will, but for me, Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc is, at one level, imbued with such intensity, that it delivers a kind of pulp ferocity reminiscent of the best episodes of Perry Mason, the long-running TV series from the Erle Stanley Gardner novels that starred Raymond Burr. Shoot me. Crucify me. Burn me at the stake. Bresson deserves reverence, serious analysis and just plain worship, BUT he also needs to be acknowledged for delivering film after film that harnesses every bit of the medium's power to generate material that is as compulsively entertaining and thrilling as the best movies are, and should be. And this film rocks big-time!
My first helping of the picture had me on the edge of my seat - in spite of, like all of Christendom, knowing the tale of the Maid of Orleans. Joan of Arc was the simple French peasant girl who, proclaiming the voice of God was guiding her, successfully led an army against British rule over her country and was subsequently turned over to England, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. Her story is that of an utterly horrible betrayal and miscarriage of justice at the hands of her fellow countrymen and the Catholic Church.
Using the actual trial transcripts and eye-witness testimonies of those who were present, Bresson's film has all the snap, crackle and pop of great courtroom drama. Watching the movie is, like many a fine procedural, gripping in that maddening fashion where we witness someone who is clearly innocent being hammered by a judicial system bent on proving its case at any cost. The difference, of course, is that the judiciary in this case are outfitted in the robes of the Catholic Church rather than that of "the Crown" and there is NO Perry Mason to save the accused. (I suppose I could say, that Joan's Perry Mason is God, and that for many, Perry Mason is, in fact God, but I'll refrain from doing so.)
The vast majority of the film's running time is the back-and-forth between Joan (Florence Delay) and her primary interrogator Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau) - first in an open "court", then within Joan's cell (to keep the rabble to a minimum and control the proceedings further). Bresson employs his trademark approach of coaching his actors (or, if you will, non-actors - Delay was an academic and Fourneau a renowned painter) to deliver their lines as naturally as possible - in longer takes and almost never in closeup.
Even with his usual style, the original transcriptions come across as expertly rendered courtroom dialogue. In reality, neither Cauchon nor Joan (especially) were no fools. They both give as good as they get. For every volley fired by Cauchon, Joan retaliates with a vigour and intelligence that knocks the Bishop on his ass - and, for that matter vice-versa.
Cauchon needs to find Joan guilty of heresy. Joan needs to fight for her life. The stakes are high for both parties and one senses that on occasion there are even moments of a strange mutual admiration between the two opposing forces - so much so that one is almost rooting for that turn in the plot (as it were) when Cauchon comes to his senses and dispenses with this whole sham of a trial.
Where things become especially gripping and extremely emotional for a viewer is that Cauchon will NEVER have this turn - we know this because we know what ultimately happened, but also, we see how Cauchon is trying to twist everything Joan says and, in fact, is even trying to control what's being entered into the official record. At one point, both the audience and Joan are agog when the findings are read out loud and clearly, obviously ignore EVERYTHING that's preceded them.
As the trial moves forward, there's a horrific ever-mounting inevitability to the proceedings. Bresson, for all his (and his academic critics) crowing about how he eschews traditional filmmaking techniques, the movie, under the steady guidance of Bresson's direction, often betrays this notion and careens brilliantly as if it were a courtroom procedural par excellence.
Between the courtroom scenes, Bresson delivers moments of solace with Joan in her cel. These provide a certain respite from the proceedings and allow Joan and the audience an opportunity to contemplate what's been going on and, more importantly, what might be next. The pace this creates is so dynamic that again, it almost flouts the traditional Bressonian approach. I'd argue, however, it not so much sways from his style, but uses his style to deliver the sort of gripping cinematic narrative he so often tries to distance himself from.
The bottom line is that this is yet another Bresson film which, for me, displays both his art AND exceptional craft. As a filmmaker, he runs rings round almost every other filmmaker who ever existed (or will EVER exist).
I've probably spent enough time linking Bresson's work here to, uh, Perry Mason, so allow me to briefly make the inevitable comparison between The Trial of Joan of Arc with Carl Dreyer's immortal The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer brings austerity to his approach also, but it's in the art direction most of all. The rooms are strangely unadorned and chalk white, whereas Bresson's rooms feel much "fuller" - perhaps mostly due to his rich, yet more straightforward compositions.
Dreyer employed the more baroque approach to composition - strange angles, intense closeups, crazed cutting (over 1500 cuts and many of them brilliantly breaking every rule of montage) and virtually no sense of spatial reference. Dreyer seeks to disorient us - so much so, that he flings us at Joan in a manner that we become Joan and feel every horrendous accusation volleyed at her.
Bresson, on the other hand, is far more measured. His compositions and lighting are gorgeous, but they are also there to place emphasis upon the proceedings and to understand Joan's place in this perverse kangaroo court and how she deals with it. Dreyer's Joan is assaulted, as are we, the audience, from beginning to end. Bresson's Joan fights back - again and again, while we seemingly fight back with her.
Amidst his manically edited mise-en-scene, replete with off-kilter perspectives, Dreyer's lighting emphasizes shades of white and grey, whereas Bresson plays with light in very different ways and is not afraid to fill his frame with darkness. All this said, however, it would be remiss of me to not mention that Bresson too employs a few extraordinary shots that are not straight-forward at all. One of the more powerful visual juxtapositions occurs at both the beginning and end of the film where Bresson employs a moving camera in both to follow two very different strides Joan takes - one towards her trial, the other towards her execution. Both are examples of Bresson's visual virtuosity and how he uses his camera eye to elicit emotional responses - again BOTH in Joan and we, the audience.
Dreyer, like Bresson, adhered to the transcripts of the actual trial, but his film is silent and he is forced by that very necessity to create a completely different approach. (The respective actresses playing Joan also couldn't be any different in look and playing style - yet both provide more than convincing and passionate renderings of the same character.) Dreyer creates a soundscape, a music, if you will, with his cutting style. Watching the film WITHOUT musical accompaniment is proof positive of this. Bresson, on the other hand, uses sound to convey more than dialogue. He builds an aural world with choice sound effects and employing silence as either the natural metre of said dialogue or to provide the aforementioned moments of solace. And in two instances, Bresson employs ear-shattering whacks on a drum skin that are so sharp, so jarring and jangling, you feel like you're being battered - assaulted.
Both works are highly experiential and use the same source material, but both seek to tackle this tragic tale by providing respective experiences that on their own are very powerful, but when viewed side-by-side are perhaps the greatest artistic rendering of this very real and horrifying subjugation of a strong and intelligent woman at the odious patriarchal hands of the Catholic Church.
The Trial of Joan of Arc exists, finally, in its own unique realm. The movie is a slice of life that uses all that cinema can offer to create a film that will infuriate, excite and finally move you to tears.
It's utterly devastating.
"The Trial of Joan of Arc" is screening as part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. The film is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Friday March 2 at 6PM. Tickets are available HERE. "The Trial of Joan of Arc" is also available on DVD.