Friday, October 12, 2012

Robert Bresson | Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc)

already a saint
by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Champion (dialogue, uncredited), Robert Bresson (writer and director) Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) 1962, USA 1965

While I am very fond of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc with the brilliant Maria Falconetti, there is something far more elegant about Bresson’s contained and controlled Trial. By concentrating on the words actually spoken at the trials, both in the courtroom and her own cell, Bresson reveals more about this shadowy saint than all of Dreyer’s and Falconetti’s expressive dramatics, which Bresson described as “grotesque buffooneries.” Bresson lets us know from the beginning that the trial has been rigged and is controlled by the English, although we see the gentle coachings of the French Monk, Isambert de la Pierre (Michel Herubel)—another brilliant example of Bresson’s intense focus on the hands of his actors or “models” as he calls them (see my essay on Bresson in Reading Films, Volume 1)—who subtly signals to Joan (Florence Delay) when she should beware of what she is saying.

     Basing his script on what was actually said, accordingly, Bresson focuses his attention on the back and forth dialogue, moving the film quite quickly through the “process,” allowing his actors little emotional movement. In this film, Joan mostly is seen looking down or away from the camera lens, crying only one time, alone in her room, early in the film.

     A great deal of our attention is taken up, instead, with the irons that bind her legs, the ropes round her body, the stone walls with eyes peeping through them and whispering figures behind, and the intense presence of Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Forneau), most often shot head-on. As Nathaniel Hood notes in his perceptive essay on the website, “Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear,” many of the questions are trick questions in which Joan would be found guilty by answering “yes” or “no.” He points to the example of the question whether or not sees herself as being in God’s grace: her answer, referenced in Dreyer’s version as well, allows her to escape the dichotomy of a heretic, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

     Time and again, as well, Joan refuses to name the King and others as instructing her or even having knowledge of her actions. Instead, she concentrates on her personal encounters with visualized voices that lead her forward, focusing on the revelations she has received from dead saints.

     As in Dreyer’s film, there is also a great deal made of her appearing dressed as a man, and she is encouraged to put on a dress. But while for Dreyer’s Joan this stirred up great emotions within her, particularly when her was cut, here Joan is simply willing to comply if necessary. Indeed, throughout she is a non-combative individual (despite her participation in war), and her testimony consists primarily of gently answering their questions and challenges.

     At one point, she even signs a confession, but recants when she realizes what is truly being asked of her, her recanting ultimately leading to her death by being burned at the stake.

     By focusing his camera more on the inquisitors than on the girl, by demonstrating the near endless interrogations she suffered and revealing the peep-show antics of the clergy surrounding her, the director encourages the viewer to further sympathize with this seeming innocent man/girl, whose fate has clearly been predetermined and whose very existence serves as a source of fascination—both spiritual and sexually for those who have imprisoned her and oversee her  trial. Unlike Dreyer, Bresson is disinterested in Joan’s passion, demonstrating instead the unseemly and brute passions of the men around her. Through the trial, she has been put on show, a plaything they can daily torment and torture before, tiring of her, they will destroy. And, in this sense, Bresson’s work comes close to be a truly feminist work—or at least a work that openly displays the patriarchal iniquities of both the English and the church. Only the white-robbed French monks, more handsome and gentle-mannered than their counterparts, are spared Bresson’s cinematic accusations.
      It is only at the end of her life, after having suffered through the “trials,” that Joan raises her head ever so slightly, as if in pride for having survived her ordeals. But even here, Bresson does not permit her any terror or representation of the horrors she is about to suffer. And in her passive gestures we recognize that she has joined herself to God, that like a nun she has married herself to her beliefs.  If Dreyer’s Joan is a passionate believer, Bresson’s has already been transformed into a kind of saint.

Los Angeles, October 11, 2012

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