Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” moves quickly and meticulously, distilling Jeanne to her essence.
Few historical figures have occupied as many works as that of Jeanne d’Arc. For someone having only lived 19 years, her death in 1431 is considered both iconic and cruel—that this young, illiterate peasant girl from a small French town could somehow be summoned by angelic voices to lead the French Army in the One Hundred Years War. Even as I write this, the events within such a deeply misogynistic society seem implausible—the story of legends.
And yet, there really was a Jeanne d’Arc and the events as we’ve been told really did happen. Perhaps this is why so many have attempted to relay her tale—each imbuing themselves into whatever image one imagines. Just as there are no known images of her—no paintings, no pictures—we are faced with the dilemma of constructing our own idea of Jeanne. Just who was she?
Robert Bresson admitted in a 1962 interview with Page Cinema that he’d always been drawn to do a film about her. “An attempt to make her present,” he said. “We are kidding ourselves if we see Jeanne as the little peasant girl of the legends. I think she was very elegant. Witnesses, people around at that time said this. I see her as a modern young girl,” he added.
Bresson cast Florence Delay as Jeanne, as he believed she represented the presence that he imagined. The Trial of Joan of Arc, finishing at just over 60 minutes, moves quickly and meticulously wherein Bresson distills Jeanne to her essence. Relying only on primary sources (that are the trial minutes and first hand testimonies) his storytelling is succinct. Throughout the film, Jeanne’s eyes are often downcast —her emotion and self pulled inward, her movements and speech perfunctory. This Jeanne is different from the one presented in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s more famously known The Passion of Joan of Arc. To contrast, Robert Bresson’s Jeanne is aloof and austere while Dreyer’s portrayal is more emotionally—shall I say—hysterical. She is less subtle and more vulnerable. The titles of each film say it all.
This is not to imply, however, that Bresson’s Jeanne is somehow not vulnerable—quite the contrary. She is observed from all angles, through peepholes where invasive guards pry. She is without peace or privacy. She is inspected for her virginity. At the whim of her captors, she is at their mercy. In one scene, when a rock is thrown through the glass window of her cell, she reaches for it and slouches upon holding it, appearing to contemplate her dissolution. Tossing it then to one side, she looks over, aware that she is being watched. She is chained, wherein she remains a creature, a freak—‘Death to the witch’ is regularly shouted in English.
The film begins with the passing of feet and the intense beating of drums. The first image we see of Jeanne is that of her shackled hands being placed over a Bible. She is being questioned and after a time, her inquisitors look onward, unadorned. They blink and glance forward, and appear unemotive. Robert Bresson hired no actors for his film, as he wanted to capture scenes less sensational and more personal. And this, coupled with the lack of score, leaves the audience listening to the muffling crowd, and the unflinching Jeanne amid her responses.
The Trial of Joan of Arc shares much in common with Bresson’s 1956 film A Man Escaped, where we are also given the eye-level realism of a prisoner—his daily movements, his positioning of hands, his sifting within his cell. Both films are void of sensationalism (A Man Escaped is also without a score) and yet we are inundated with their most human qualities—that both are vulnerable prisoners who carry a tenacity within.
I chose to discuss this film over others of Bresson’s due to it being somewhat overlooked, but also because it is a personal film, one which I watched when preparing to write my own novella on Jeanne d’ Arc (currently unpublished). The Trial of Joan of Arc is minimalist and is similar to a film version novella. Impressive it is how Bresson manages to capture her character in such short duration. There are no wasted moments—all matter. When Jeanne is pressed for answers, her responses feel automated, as though she is taking dictation. She appears to never contemplate before her inquisitors. Only when she is alone does she do so. And if her holiness were true—that she is indeed a messenger from God, then the immediacy of her responses would manifest via the angelic voices she claims to hear. It all makes sense.
Yet once Jeanne is ordered to recant, her eyes remain downcast and her emotions inaccessible. She is detached in her recital, and her motions are subtle even if mechanical. When the authorities find her later in her cell, Jeanne’s back is to the camera as she confesses having been raped. We never see her face. Even upon being woken from sleep, she appears as though she has been crying (perhaps only to cry in her dream) and her voice remains austere and void of quivering. She remains tender, however.
Only after she is shuffled barefoot to the scaffold, and her few personal items are burned along with her, do we once again hear the sounds of the impeding drums—as though they are declaring doom upon all who watch from their impassive expressions, their ever ennui. Only the scaffold remains, once Jeanne is gone.
The first few times I watched this film I was examining it for its narrative—just how Robert Bresson managed to say so much with so little. I watched it for its history—then after I read more on her, I watched again. I noticed a newness upon each viewing. Then, before constructing this essay, I watched it once again—not for the history but for the direction. The angles, the hands, the feet, the shifting of bodies. Jeanne is portrayed both in form and in essence. And I felt both comforted and lost, however briefly. Jeanne was canonized in 1920. And as in Bresson’s film, her life was certain and it was sudden—a thunderous drum.
* * *
Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962). Criterion. Prod. Agnes Delahaie.
Recent work by Jessica Schneider: Curtains on the Wall: The Poetry of Hazel Hall
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Steven Pinker’s pollyanna philosophy, an in-depth look at Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and more.