Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Trial of Joan of Arc

The Trial of Joan of Arc (French: Procès de Jeanne d'Arc) is a 1962 historical film by the French director Robert Bresson. Joan of Arc is played by Florence Delay.

As usual in Bresson's mature films, The Trial of Joan of Arc stars non-professional performers and is filmed in an extremely spare, restrained style. Bresson's screenplay is drawn from the transcriptions of Joan's trial and rehabilitation.

Bresson's Joan of Arc is often compared with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Bresson compared that film unfavorably with his own, expressing his dislike of the actors' "grotesque buffooneries" in Dreyer's film.

Bresson rejected acting; he wanted his nonprofessional performers simply to be, part of his notion of film as a pure art form. The script for Joan of Arc adheres quite closely to the actual record of the trial and of the rehabilitation process 25 years later: Joan is interrogated and taken back to her cell repeatedly, the back-and-forth of the inquisition and the clang of Joan's shackles providing the film's rhythm. Delay, her limpid eyes frequently downcast, isn't "unexpressive" but unsentimental; though austere, she is unwavering, resolute. In an interview with Pipolo, Delay, who would go on to write novels, narrate Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983), and be elected to the Académie Française in 2000, explains that she thought of Joan "as an intrepid individual with a mission to perform." She gave her director what he wanted, but gives audiences more: a new way to access and appreciate history's most remarkable adolescent visionary.
Melissa Anderson

In Robert Bresson's third film he worked entirely with nonprofessional actors in order to get more honest portrayals, a practice he was to follow for the rest of his career which spanned 49 years but only accounted for 13 films. Even so, Bresson is considered the most influential director of France and one of the world's most revered filmmakers. This austere and ritualistic version of the trial of Joan of Arc is considered the most accurate portrait of the trial on film, yet. It's based on the minutes and eyewitness accounts of Joan of Arc's trial. Bresson gives the viewer a voyeuristic look at the psychological and physical torture and humiliation that Joan underwent during the trial, showing how such sado-masochistic techniques were used to break her resolve and cause her to eventually recant her testimony. She will change her mind again when she decides it's better to die than live the rest of her life in an English jail. In an interview, Bresson has said that Joan is someone he considers as the most amazing person in history.

The Trial of Joan of Arc is the story of the sincere 19-year-old peasant girl, Joan the Maid (Florence Carrez) from Domrémy, who believed she had visions from God that told her to recover her homeland from English domination late in the Hundred Years' War. After leading her troops successfully in battle and restoring the monarchy to Charles VII, who received his coronation at Rheims, there were court intrigues that rendered her revolt against the government no longer possible and after her capture she was placed for four months in the chateau of Beaurevoir as a prisoner; Joan was transferred to the English and spent seven months in their military jail located in a castle at Rouen (the seat of the English occupation government) before put on trial in 1431. The politically motivated trial lasted from February 21st through the end of March. Joan  is manacled and spied upon through peepholes, as she sits in a prison with taunting British guards. The film opens with a manacled Joan swearing on the Bible to tell the truth. The presiding judge is the hostile Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau), considered to be an Anglophile (he owed his appointment to his partisanship with the English government, who financed the entire trial). The court is eager for a quick conviction on the accused heretic and witch to please the British authorities. Joan is cross-examined by the bishop about hearing the voice of God, which she says comes through the voices of St. Catherine and St. Margaret. There are a long list of charges over such things as she wore a mandrake around her neck and dressed as a man. Joan argued if she wore a dress the English guards would try and rape her, which indeed happened when she donned a dress. 

Joan's convicted of heresy, as the bogus trial is only about getting revenge--the transcripts show no proof of her guilt was ever established. Bresson wisely lets the drama speak for itself, adding no false dramatics or emotional outcries. It proves to be a richly moving experience, especially the last shot of Joan in her purity being burned at the stake. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival of 1962.
Dennis Schwartz

Bresson's film is quite extraordinary. An entirely static camera, a repertoire of what seems like only a handful of angles, and no music save the unnerving thumping of medieval drums at the beginning and end, all add up to a form restrained to the point of stasis. The movement of the film comes entirely from the words and from the faces. And from the rigorous choice of those few camera angles. It is a moot point as to whether or not it is relevant that the script is composed almost entirely of transcripts from the actual trial. However, the viewer armed with this knowledge must surely be privy to an extraordinary sense of time-travel - a restrained, respectful and highly spiritual journey back into the "dark ages". There is necessarily an inescapable sense of people hundreds of years dead speaking through the mouths of the (non-professional) actors, whose limited but affecting range fits perfectly with the curious juxtaposition of past and present, of cinema and grace.

As has been pointed out many times before, one of the primary differences between Bresson's film and Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc is in their formal delineation between good and evil; where Dreyer uses light and shadow to point up the difference, in the Bresson film the contrast is more subtle, resting, it would seem, mainly on the fact that the Bishop Cauchon is shut exclusively head on, whilst Jeanne commands a variety of oblique camera angles. But the subtlety of the camera also brings out a fantastic sense of time, space, and place. The numerous close-ups of period shoes are all we need to have the era set firmly in our minds; the medium-shots - and complete absence of anything like a long shot - simultaneously reinforce the claustrophobia of Jeanne's predicament, and focus our attention on her, and that which falls under her gaze. The one notable exception to this is the short series of shots while she burns on the pyre, of the white doves fluttering above the canvas awning, suitable parallels with the absent characters of the Saints Catharine and Margaret, whose presence is felt and whose names recur throughout the trial. A simple film, formally, perhaps, but only in the sense that everything is pared down to a minimum, and the choices are only made with the greatest of care and most rigorous of logic. The words and the faces do not need embellishment. They need attention and simplicity, in the same way that the words uttered by the real Joan of Arc are simple and unadorned. A masterful marriage of form and content.
Tom Newth

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