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The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)


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Finally caught up with this the other night. I posted the following on my blog, but thought since this film was in the top 100, it deserved a thread of its own.

Robert Bresson's 1962 version of this famous historical event, based entirely on the minutes from the trial, provides a claustrophobic, reverent, and surprisingly brisk walk through significant moments in Joan's final days. Clocking in at a mere 61 minutes, Bresson's frequent cuts make the film feel even faster than it is. Constantly the camera cuts away from Joan to those scrutinizing her, and then back again. Some look upon her with sympathetic eyes, though most feel little beyond disdain for her, most often, it seems, for political, rather than exclusively religious reasons. This way of shooting and editing the piece serves to heighten Joan's alienation from those around her.

The trial tends to focus on religious elements, which makes sense, since Joan was tried by an ecclesiastical court, headed by the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon. However, there was far more in play here beyond a simple theological dispute. Joan, having been involved in what amounts to a civil war in 15th century France, had been captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies. It was under these inauspicious circumstances that the trial was conducted. Bresson cleverly highlights the political nature of the trial with brief scenes before and after the day's proceedings or in and around Joan's cell. The bulk of the action takes place in the courtroom � a theologically driven question and answer between judges and accused that sees Joan fielding questions from at least three different men who often attempt to trip her up with their adroit queries.

Most interesting about the film is Bresson's focus on the physicality of his characters. In typical Bresson fashion, he focuses his camera on the bodies of his actors, especially their hands and feet. The opening shot of the film pictures the walking feet of three people (including Joan's mother), on their way to Joan's rehabilitation trial some 25 years after her death. Once there, Joan's mother is held up by the hands of monks on either side of her. As she's turned away from the camera, reading a prepared piece about Joan, those helping hands are the most notable elements in the shot.

Contrast that opening sequence with the film's conclusion, as Joan makes the long walk to her place of execution. Bresson refuses to point the camera at her face, preferring instead to show her bare feet, in a continuous shot, walking along the broken stone. In this sequence, the feet of many onlookers stand in the background, one of whom even sticks his foot out to trip her (in case one wondered if they had any pity for her). Then, as Joan is being consumed by flames, Bresson shoots part of the scene from behind, where we see her hands, chained to the post, reach out in pain. Joan's naked feet and chained hands are quite a contrast from the clothed feet and soft hands of the intro.

Yet, even in that most difficult moment when Joan is so alone, those naked feet are a marked contrast from her chained feet throughout the trial. Consider the first time she is brought back to her room. The guard chains her foot to the immovable beam as Joan weeps at the edge of the bed. She is captive, with no sign it will end. Yet as the film concludes, and Joan makes that long walk over the stony path, her feet, while naked and accompanied only by a dangling cross, are free as they move toward impending death. There is a courage in those bare feet, a courage that evokes the one to whom she serves and entrusts herself.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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Of all the Bresson films that I have seen, this is the only one that I struggle with. Try as I might, I can't find a way in - though this has less to do with Bresson's technique, which is always a positive and never a negative for me, than with the film's subject matter: sainthood. Bresson believes in Joan so completely that I just don't believe in his movie. I would be interested in hearing how other non-Catholics approach it.

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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FWIW, links to threads on Fleming's Joan of Arc (1948) and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Haven't seen Bresson's film yet, but wouldn't mind doing so.

And yeah, the question of sainthood is a complicated one, especially (IMHO) where Joan is concerned. We get into that in the Dreyer thread (and in a much older thread on the Dreyer film that this board's thread links to).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Of all the Bresson films that I have seen, this is the only one that I struggle with. Try as I might, I can't find a way in - though this has less to do with Bresson's technique, which is always a positive and never a negative for me, than with the film's subject matter: sainthood. Bresson believes in Joan so completely that I just don't believe in his movie. I would be interested in hearing how other non-Catholics approach it.

Thanks for the response, Invisible. It hadn't occurred to me to think about "Joan as saint," at least not in such a direct way (I'm sure partly because I'm not Catholic and don't automatically think in such terms). I was thinking Bresson did a sufficient job of distancing her from the Church structure that would proclaim her a saint. His focus is so strongly focused on the trial itself, and the simple movements of the characters, rather than trying so much to contextualize her suffering into an image of sainthood, that it allowed me to experience the trial removed from such considerations.

I also felt Bresson took steps to distance Joan from the Church hierarchy around her. Even the one monk who seems to be helping her during the trial never gets to do anything like huddle with Joan and plan strategy. His presence (along with a couple of others) let us know there are some sympathetic ears in the crowd, but we don't get the benefit of that relationship being contextualized for us. This alienation probably helped to further keep any connection between Joan and the Church to a minimum in my mind.

I would be interested in your thoughts about how you feel the film introduces us to the concept of her sainthood. I suspect the film's opening through the credits is a big part of that, which is fair. Any thoughts?

Edited by John

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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Thank you for posting those links, Peter. When you wrote this in the Dreyer thread, you pretty much expressed my own feelings:

I frankly have no idea how "holy" her life was. She heard voices, yes, but schizophrenics (and perhaps others, for all I know) hear voices all the time. And she invested most of her spiritual energies in a highly partisan war of no obvious spiritual merit or benefit. These things made her famous, and it is possible that she was both famous and holy, but being famous itself does not make someone holy.

The fact that Bresson gives us Joan's actual words in believable, drab settings with no melodrama (for Dreyer, Maria Falconetti constantly looked skyward, but Florence Delay was directed to look down) makes the material feel very intimate and authentic, but each time I watch I find myself thinking "this poor young girl is in urgent need of psychiatric help", and I ultimately find the film stilted and unspiritual.

I would be interested in your thoughts about how you feel the film introduces us to the concept of her sainthood. I suspect the film's opening through the credits is a big part of that, which is fair. Any thoughts?

I am not sure that the film does define her sainthood exactly. For Bresson, it's a given, and that's the problem. When Joan claims to hear the voices of Sts Catherine, Margaret and Michael, we are expected to just accept it.

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Great observations, John. Did you get to watch the Artificial Eye region 2 DVD? It's a beautiful transfer...previously, this film had only been available via terrible bootleg VHS copies.

I love your comparison of the beginning and end of the film, and your comments about hands. The movie is very renowned for its overall rhythm, from scene-to-scene and shot-to-shot (told in shot-reverse shot manner).

In this sequence, the feet of many onlookers stand in the background, one of whom even sticks his foot out to trip her (in case one wondered if they had any pity for her).

Bresson also compared the tripping to Jesus on the Via Dolorosa.

...but each time I watch I find myself thinking "this poor young girl is in urgent need of psychiatric help", and I ultimately find the film stilted and unspiritual....I am not sure that the film does define her sainthood exactly. For Bresson, it's a given, and that's the problem. When Joan claims to hear the voices of Sts Catherine, Margaret and Michael, we are expected to just accept it.

I dunno...it seems to me that we should distinguish between Joan's spirituality and her sainthood. I don't find anything psychologically unhealthy about Joan hearing voices, virtually every Christian I know claims to hear the voice of God at times, or describes their prayer life in terms of conversations and dialogues. Of course there's a distinction to be made between faith visions and psychosis, or perceiving the voice of God and schizophrenia, but I'd say those distinctions exist.

Bresson seems less interested in her sainthood, than her visionary accomplishment as a young woman, full of wisdom beyond her years and education, offering a model of personal faith in the face of adversity. By leaving Joan's visions offscreen, in fact, he forces the viewer to relate to her in an objective, physical, immediate manner. In other words, it's less important whether or not she heard voices than whether or not she believed she heard voices.

Bresson said in an interview: "It seems to me that the emotion here, in this trial (and in this film), should come not so much from the agony and death of Joan [he once criticized Falconetti's melodramatic acting in Dreyer's version] as from the strange air that we breathe while she talks of her voices, or of the crown or of the angel, just as she would talk of one of us or of this glass or of this carafe. What St. Ignatious would demand a century later, this familiarity with a palpable supernatural, Joan's genius reached without the shade of a difficulty." Bresson seems more interested in Joan's spiritual conviction and resilience than her canonization or any larger questions of historical position.

The Trial of Joan of Arc is a very interesting film in terms of Bresson's career. It was the last film shot by L.H. Burel, who had shot Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket; it was the third film that used prison as a primary plot element; and it was his last film of that series (sans Escaped) to emphasize the physical act of writing. His next two films were Balthazar and Mouchette, and then he began his color period.

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Incidentally, this along with Diary was Tarkovsky's favorite Bresson film:

"How magnificent
The Trial of Joan of Arc
is--it's simply amazing! Joan comes out of the cellar, the camera pans--she walks, sits at the table, across sits a priest, the examining magistrate. A shot of her--a shot of him, a shot of her--a shot of him, she says something--he says something, next the interrogation is finished, she stands up and leaves. The end. The episode is over. The second one is the same. Episodes three and four are the same. Minimum tools and no extra meanings from juxtapositions of shots. These various little tricks are our invention. To make something look like a candy. Cinema's existence is not enough for them. They have to make something bigger out of it, something full of expression. Cinema is like poetry. They have to make superpoetry out of poetry. Pushkin is not enough, something different and new is required...

Bresson is a genius. Here I can state it plainly--he is a genius. If he occupies the first place, the next director occupies the tenth. This distance is very depressing."

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Doug, thanks for the comments. I am pressed for time at the moment, but I want to respond to some of the points you bring out. I'll get back to it tonight or tomorrow.

I saw it on the region 2 Artificial Eye, and I was very impressed with the quality of the image. Beautiful stuff.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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Bresson seems less interested in her sainthood, than her visionary accomplishment as a young woman, full of wisdom beyond her years and education, offering a model of personal faith in the face of adversity. By leaving Joan's visions offscreen, in fact, he forces the viewer to relate to her in an objective, physical, immediate manner. In other words, it's less important whether or not she heard voices than whether or not she believed she heard voices.

I don't quite understand that distinction, especially as Bresson gives such priority to Joan's actual words (her words are the film's raison d'etre). This was an attempt to create some sort of a historical document, but there is no real exploration or analysis of the material, and Bresson assumes that by keeping things simple we will get to the simple truth. When you serve it all up with experts calling the transcripts of the trial "a fifth gospel" on the Artificial Eye DVD, I start to feel very uneasy.

To my way of thinking, if Joan heard voices, she was crazy, and if she did not, then she was a liar (which is similar, I know, to C.S. Lewis' argument for Christ in Mere Christianity). Either way, I don't trust her spiritually, so I don't trust Bresson's film. One can appreciate his technique (as Tarkovsky clearly did, from that piece you quoted), but beyond that is a gaping void.

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Doug, in your response to Invisible Man, you said:

Bresson seems less interested in her sainthood, than her visionary accomplishment as a young woman, full of wisdom beyond her years and education, offering a model of personal faith in the face of adversity. By leaving Joan's visions offscreen, in fact, he forces the viewer to relate to her in an objective, physical, immediate manner. In other words, it's less important whether or not she heard voices than whether or not she believed she heard voices.

Bresson said in an interview: "It seems to me that the emotion here, in this trial (and in this film), should come not so much from the agony and death of Joan [he once criticized Falconetti's melodramatic acting in Dreyer's version] as from the strange air that we breathe while she talks of her voices, or of the crown or of the angel, just as she would talk of one of us or of this glass or of this carafe. What St. Ignatious would demand a century later, this familiarity with a palpable supernatural, Joan's genius reached without the shade of a difficulty." Bresson seems more interested in Joan's spiritual conviction and resilience than her canonization or any larger questions of historical position.

This is interesting, because as I was reflecting and writing about the film, I had another whole set of thoughts about her visions and how she talked about them. I didn't include them here, because I wanted to do some checking on how she talked about her visions, but your last sentence of the first paragraph I quoted goes along with a theory I was formulating.

As I reflected on the film, I was pretty sure that Joan never said the voices were from God, rather when questioned directly, that she believed they were, which is an important distinction. If she says the former, and they are not, she commits blasphemy. If she says the latter, it's more like her saying I think God (or the saints) have spoken to me. There is an element of doubt present, yet she acts on them regardless. (I think this might speak to Invisible's later question as well).

However, when we come to the end of the film, just before Joan is burned, she confesses that her voices were in fact from God, a statement of certainty. Why the change? My suspicion (and I really need another viewing to confirm all this) is that Joan was forced to this position because of the hard line the Church took with her. They were uncomfortable with the ambiguity, so they forced her into a corner - either say that they are from God or not from God. She couldn't say no, so she was forced to say yes (at the price of her life).

Invisible, I am interested in your statement about the "simple truth" and what you think it is that Bresson is driving at? It seems to me by using only the words of the trial and stripping away any contextualizing, Bresson actually makes the truth complex rather than simple. In other words, with less information, there are more interpretive options. Just using her words forces one to think about what they would do if confronted with a similar situation. It forces one to think about the position of the Church at the time, and how they should respond to the situation. It forces one to think about Joan, how she delivered them, and what she could have been thinking as she was challenged and eventually condemned. This way of filming all this seems much more complex than if Bresson had even taken the simple step of titling his film "Trial of Saint Joan of Arc."

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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Invisible, I am interested in your statement about the "simple truth" and what you think it is that Bresson is driving at? It seems to me by using only the words of the trial and stripping away any contextualizing, Bresson actually makes the truth complex rather than simple. In other words, with less information, there are more interpretive options. Just using her words forces one to think about what they would do if confronted with a similar situation. It forces one to think about the position of the Church at the time, and how they should respond to the situation. It forces one to think about Joan, how she delivered them, and what she could have been thinking as she was challenged and eventually condemned. This way of filming all this seems much more complex than if Bresson had even taken the simple step of titling his film "Trial of Saint Joan of Arc."

I don't know. Bresson's "transcendental style" was an attempt to get to the spiritual truth, and he was often successful in this endeavour. His films are chock-full of seemingly small details that reveal something of the essence of things, something far beyond mere language. Think of those glorious hands picking hazelnuts, or mopping up broken glass in L'Argent, for example. Or perhaps Mouchette's fleeting smile whilst riding the dodgems. In those moments there is a real sense that Bresson has captured a sunbeam in a bottle (to borrow again from Lewis) and one's heart skips a beat. Bottling sunbeams was Bresson's business.

And I think that this spiritual clarity is what he was striving for in The Trial of Joan of Arc. But the difference here is that the spirituality begins with words rather than images, and those words, whilst intriguing, are loaded.

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Bresson's "transcendental style" was an attempt to get to the spiritual truth, and he was often successful in this endeavour. His films are chock-full of seemingly small details that reveal something of the essence of things, something far beyond mere language.

Setting aside Schrader's term for the moment, the film's formal examples that we've cited (the extraordinary cutting rhythm, the physicality of its characters and movements) are among the film's "sunbeams in bottles." No hazelnuts this time, but there is the endless footsteps and doors opening and closing and sublime visual moments. (There's a shot of Joan half-sleeping in bed that is stunning in its beauty.) It sounds like you have a theological disposition against the historical Joan of Arc, and therefore dismiss the film outright. Personally (although I'm not Catholic), I don't find her belief in communing with saints outrageous or "loaded" at all, and feel that Bresson merely emphasizes the conviction for the invisible and the mysterious found in all faith. And given the critical reputation of the film, it's clear that a lot of secularists don't find Joan's visions too insurmountable, either.

Florence Delay, who played Joan, is a writer, and she compared Bresson's rhythmic selection and condensation of the trial transcripts to writing music. She later wrote eloquently about the film:

"Robert Bresson has filmed the invisible. By limiting--I would say, almost by enclosing--the visible in such a concrete manner that shots of it become timeless. What is there to see in prison, in whatever prison? Corners, walls, a bed, a door, a spy-hole, chains. Our whole attention is fixed on the interior freedom of the captive, on her face, or to say it in another way, her soul. . . . What can someone condemned to death read in the faces of her judges except death? Except that Joan, who sees her own death--and is afraid of it, as we all are--does not look at it all the time. Her face tilted up, she listens to the questions--all the traps--and then listens to what God, her heart, her voices, say about it. It is in that brief time, that tiny interval indicated during the shooting (listening to one's interior being), and created by the rhythm of the montage, that Joan, like every hero of Bresson, escapes. Toward invisible life, the other life, that she rejoins, body and soul. Flown away, like a bird filmed from below the tent where it was resting."

Gary, what are your thoughts on Diary of a Country Priest, which also emphasizes words, theological concepts, and Catholicism?

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It sounds like you have a theological disposition against the historical Joan of Arc, and therefore dismiss the film outright.

Yes, that's probably correct. We are in sort of the same ballpark as in the science fiction thread: a film has to conform to my specific Christian world view or, at least, not contradict it, for me to be able to engage with it in a positive manner. I can't explain why I think this way, but I do. I am one of those people who would never, under any circumstances, sit through The Da Vinci Code.

Gary, what are your thoughts on Diary of a Country Priest, which also emphasizes words, theological concepts, and Catholicism?

You have struck a nerve, amigo lol. I haven't seen Diary of a Country Priest in over twenty years, and my memory of it is extremely fuzzy. It is not available on DVD in England. :(

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Just for the record, I myself do not have a problem with the idea that people can commune with the saints. What I dispute in the case of Joan's voices is the purpose to which those voices pointed: The killing of one set of Catholic soldiers by another set of Catholic soldiers. And I think films that focus exclusively on Joan's trial run the risk of making Joan out to be merely some sort of victim, when in fact she was very much an aggressor, and it was precisely her aggression that led to her arrest and her trial.

Alas, while I have seen Dreyer's film a few times, I have not seen Bresson's film, so I cannot comment on how he handles these issues.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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When the film begins, Joan is already under arrest, and, while Bresson shows her to be a headstrong young girl, she is always presented sympathetically and as a victim. There is no attempt at historical context. Joan's righteousness, like her spirituality, is a given.

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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  • 2 years later...
Coming to Vancouver:

Pacific Cin

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 6 years later...

I'm writing a paper for a graduate class on filmic depictions of Joan of Arc, and watched this the other night. I'll have to go read through the discussion in the Dreyer film thread, but found this to be an interesting contrast to Dreyer's approach of essentially the same material, as both worked directly from the historical trial notes. Both films are very simple and stark, focusing entirely on the end of Joan's life in the prison, though Bresson's film is a "trial" while Dreyer's is a "passion." The Bressonian stoic, stilted performances and intentional distance with the camera somehow worked for me. The only close-up I noticed in the entire film--one akin to Dreyer's approach--was when Joan receives the Eucharist before her execution. It's interesting to me that this film precedes Au Hasard Balthazar, which is followed by Mouchette, forming a thematic trilogy about young women and great suffering.

I'm fascinated by the diversity of exemplary filmmakers focused their efforts on this historical religious figure-- for the paper, I'm specifically looking at the films of Melies, DeMille, Dreyer, Fleming, Bresson, Preminger, and Rivette. (And Besson, but that one is atrocious). Anyone else seen Jacques Rivette's two-part Joan film? There's no A&F thread that I can find.

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