The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, 1962) by Robert Bresson tells the story of Joan of Arc during the final period of her captivity and her execution in 1431. Like all of Bresson’s films, there is no backstory provided concerning significant background information of the characters, but in this case, one is scarcely necessary. The amazing story of the “Maid of Orleans” is well known. Joan, an illiterate 17-year-old peasant girl, approached the besieged French military forces during the Hundred Years War and swore that voices from God and His messengers had commanded her to help the French army drive the English from French soil. She was given command and proceeded to lead her forces to a string of stunning victories over the English that reversed the course of the war. However, she was captured in action by the French Burgundian allies of the English in 1430 near Compiègne and eventually turned over to the English military authorities in Rouen. There she was placed on trial for heresy before a Roman Catholic Church court made up mostly of clerics sympathetic to the English cause. It is this trial that comprises the story of Bresson’s film.
Bresson’s sources for this work came exclusively from the court records of her trial for heresy in 1431 and from depositions from eyewitnesses to her subsequent execution taken at her retrial twenty five years later. It is remarkable how complete these records are, and they have fascinated scholars ever since. Although many films have been made about Joan of Arc, it is notable that Carl Dreyer’s legendary silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928) also relied on these same records, so it is worthwhile to contrast the two works.
Basing a film script entirely and strictly on court testimony presents a severe challenge to a silent filmmaker, and it is remarkable how successful Dreyer actually was at telling his story in silent fashion. True, there are key intertitles in Dreyer’s film that explicitly state some crucial exchanges in the trial, but much of the narrative is conveyed by means of the dramatic countenances and facial expressions of the court participants, particularly those of Joan. Bresson, with the advantage of a sound track at his disposal, takes a completely opposite approach. For him, the sound track is everything, and the visual images in this film are only supposed to accompany the words. This advantage is important here, because Bresson’s extensive and meticulous coverage of the trial cross-examinations and Joan’s surprisingly precise responses offer more valuable information about both the disputatious dialectics of the trial and the intuitive nature of Joan’s mental framework.
Of course, Bresson’s stylistic choices in this film must be seen in the light of his characteristic aesthetic style, which had developed over the course of his preceding films: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), Diary of a Country Priest” (1950), A Man Escaped” (1956), and Pickpocket (1959). By now Bresson’s pattern was set. He would always use unprofessional actors (his “models”) with no previous acting experience, who would be instructed to render “flat” performances and show almost no emotion when they read their lines, often with downcast glances. He would also typically avoid scene establishing shots (as did Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc), concentrating instead mainly on medium and close shots and often focusing on the slow deliberate motion of hands and feet. This approach contributes here to the feelings of confinement and claustrophobia (and even paranoia) that effectively evoke the stressful circumstances of imprisonment.
Also like Dreyer’s film, but achieved by slightly different means, the viewer sympathizes with Joan, but doesn’t completely identify with her – one doesn’t “get inside” her consciousness and see things from her perspective. Instead, we see things from a greater distance. This is the dreamlike nature of Bresson’s film narratives, which have their undeniable power in evoking a subconscious feeling of disturbed wonder.
But there is another stylistic element in The Trial of Joan of Arc that is distinct from Bresson’s earlier films, particularly Pickpocket. In Pickpocket, there seemed to be frequently unmotivated pauses separating the individual statements in conversations. The speech in that film did not flow the way we would expect in spontaneously motivated interactions. There were also scenes that would start with just am empty, static view of a room or a doorway for several seconds – prior to the appearance of any agency of action. Or, there would be the final moments of camera shots, after a player had departed from the scene, but with the camera lingering for several seconds on a now-empty environment. These pauses seemed awkward, but they would pull the viewer out of the involved flow of the action and into reflection. Such pauses are not present in The Trial of Joan of Arc. Instead, we have just the opposite – a rapid-fire exchange of verbal statements that come so quickly and unnaturally that they seem not to correspond to any kind of reflective response to the preceding statements. This does make the film move swiftly along, which can have its advantages when the film is based primarily on court testimony. But it would appear that Bresson may have overcompensated in this regard. The film is only 62 minutes in length, and it might have benefitted from the insertion of more reflective pauses now and then, such as were employed by Olmi in Il Posto.
The overall effect created by Bresson is nevertheless impressive. The rapid-fire exchanges undertaken by expressionless, seemingly body-snatched, clergy make the entire proceedings even more relentlessly inhuman. In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the clergy are often simply seen as spiteful, greedy, and malicious. The clergy in that film are prey to all the faults of self-motivated sinners. But in Bresson’s’ film, the clergy are soulless automata that are faceless representatives of the Church machine. In Dreyer’s film, the clergy in Rouen could be seen to comprise individual sinners who failed to act in the manner of true Christians. In Bresson’s film, however, the Church, itself, stands as an implacable opponent of the individual who has been inspired by the spirit of God. This is a more profound indictment. Bresson's aesthetic style, which evokes a feeling that everyone in the film is sleepwalking, enhances the sense of horror that this indictment arouses. In this connection it should be noted that the real Joan was not tutored as a youth by scholarly churchmen, but most probably by monks of the Franciscan order, which has affinities with Sufism. This “folk-level teaching” of the Franciscans in the community would likely contrast sharply with the ethos of a worldly Church in the middle of doctrinal and organizational power disputes and seeking to impose its control over its followers. The idea of an ecstatic mystic who had direct spiritual encounters was anathema to the established order of the Church, but not to certain Sufic modes of being, both in and outside Christianity. Joan had to be condemned as a heretic, in order for the Churchmen to retain their structured command over the laity and the people at large. This is perhaps also why the Church was so tardy (1920) in canonizing Joan. In fact it’s remarkable that this dramatically independent individual, inspired by her own profound spiritual experiences, was ever endorsed by the clerical establishment. Note that this grim rationale of control over spirituality parallels the thesis presented in Dostoyevsky's parable from The Brothers Karamzaov, "The Grand Inquisitor". Dostoyevsky's work was a major influence on Bresson, having also inspired his Pickpocket (1959), Une Femme Douce (1969), and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971).
In line with these thematic differences, Bresson’s character, "Joan", is dramatically different from Dreyer’s "Joan", who is played by Falconetti. Falconetti evinces in Dreyer’s film the pathos of Joan, showing her intense fear and anguish, as well as the way she summoned the inner reserves of her faith in order to endure the grueling trial and execution. The viewer cannot help but feel compassion for this Joan during the agonizing struggle between her and the authorities. Bresson’s “Joan”, played by Florence Delay, is much more self-contained and less vulnerable. Despite the hostile circumstances of her captivity (continuously enchained and spied upon), she is generally composed and sure of both herself and her answers. Unlike Faconetti, Delay seems not to anticipate receiving true justice and is not awed by the eminence of her captors. She sometimes even demands that her rights be acknowledged, and she denies the authority of the ecclesiastical court, saying that she obeys in preference the higher authorities of King and God. It is well-known, of course, that Bresson doesn’t use professional actors, because he wants to avoid having someone "perform" a role – presumably because he wants his players to embody the character in an intuitive way. But it is interesting that his selected “models” are usually intellectuals, writers, and professionals. Florence Delay was the daughter of a member of the Académie Française, and she, herself, was elected to that body years later. So it seems that his models might have the inclination (and even be encouraged) to engage the character in an intellectual, rather than intuitive, manner. Intellectually-inspired or not, Delay’s “Joan” is nonetheless effective and convincing. At 20, Delay was about a decade younger than Falconetti was for Dreyer's film, and she was closer to the real Joan's age at the time of the trial. She managed to demonstrate in this film a youthful confidence, as well as innocence, that provides the real dramatic underpinning the story -- a courageous young woman is ground down to cinder and embers by a ruthless theological machine that has compromised itself for political purposes.
The final image of the film is the charred remains of Joan at the stake. We are left to reflect on what that means to us. Bresson’s films often evoke and engage the spiritual yearnings of man, but he himself was said to be an agnostic - a seeker who had yet to find the answer. As with many others of his films, there is no explicit or material promise offered, but there is still that unquenchable thirst for grace.