Bresson’s ‘Joan of Arc’ film is as spare and minimalist as you can imagine, distilling with startling clarity the moral essence of one of history’s most infamous trials.
Cast: Florence Delay, Jean-Claude Fourneau, Roger Honorat
Plot: In 15th-century France, Joan of Arc, compelled by visions of God, leads the French charge against invading English forces. She is captured and put on trial for heresy.
Awards: Won Jury Special Prize, OCIC Award & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Moderate – Joan of Arc Trial; Injustice
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
I haven’t yet seen Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in its entirety, often regarded as one of silent cinema’s most essential works, but from what I’ve heard, Robert Bresson’s version is its antithesis.
And at only about an hour long, it is also his shortest feature, yet seeing it, you would feel as if you had been through heaven and hell with the protagonist.
The genius of Bresson is that he doesn’t go straight for the emotions—in fact, the film is quite bereft of any clear markers of emotions; instead, the director lets the travesty of the judicial process speak for itself.
“My name is Joan. I am 19.”
In order to achieve greater authenticity, Bresson worked with the trial’s official transcript, and for much of the film, we witness how Joan defends herself from hearsay and accusations as religious authorities subject her to wave after wave of theological questioning of her faith, beliefs, and the ‘voices’ of God and saints that had instructed her to mount a fierce defence of her motherland from the marauding English forces.
As much as The Trial of Joan of Arc is a reconstruction of one of history’s most infamous trials, it is also, and perhaps even more so, a showcase of Joan’s incredible wit and composure in the face of a likely death sentence by burning at the stake. Non-professional actress Florence Delay, who plays Joan, is utterly convincing.
There is no respite for the character—outside of the scenes in court, Joan sits alone in her prison cell while men outside leer at her through a secret peephole, subjecting her to, as Laura Mulvey would say, a curious and controlling gaze. They seem to ask: “Who is this virgin who is also a witch? She must suffer.”