“In my Trial of Joan of Arc I have tried to avoid “theater” and “masquerade”, but to arrive at a non-historical truth by using historical words.”
– Robert Bresson (1)
Released in 1962, and receiving mild-hearted reviews from the press, Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) remained for a long time one of the French filmmaker’s most overlooked films. 40 years later, and in light of other adaptations of the trial that preceded and succeeded it – notably Carl T. Dreyer and Jacques Rivette’s masterpieces La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jeanne la Pucelle II – Les prisons (Joan the Maid: The Prisons, 1994) – Bresson’s film, featuring low-key mise en scène detailing the precise period in which the Maid of Orleans lived, stands up as one of the most particular and transcendent works of his oeuvre.
Whether or not we agree with Bresson’s statement that Dreyer’s mise en scène and notions of expressionist acting were “grotesque buffooneries”, we can consider this controversial statement as a starting point for examining his own construction of the film. This relentlessly edited, minimalist, sparse film, almost shot in automatic mode, is a direct affront to what he considered the “terrible habit of theater”(2), the “over expressive” (as he would say) method that he successfully avoided throughout his career.
Florence Delay: A Drawing in Canvas
In Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Florence Delay’s presence plays a fundamental role in communicating Bresson’s intent. A 20-year-old university student (listed as Florence Carrez in the film), she gives a bleak but paradoxically powerful performance as Jeanne across her trial, sentencing and final demise. Her expressionless performance gives her character a sense of stoicism that fits perfectly with the portrayal Bresson was aiming to achieve.
There is a certain rawness in what Delay does (or doesn’t do) in this film. Her automated ways imbue her character with a presence that equals that of a character in a painting. Delay’s voice reappeared in the French language version of Chris Marker’s travel documentary Sans soleil (Sunless, 1983), another timeless masterpiece. In Sans soleil, her particular presence (she reads letters sent to her by her fictitious cameraman) is also vital to the film’s intention, and its reflection on memory and the passing of time. In Dreyer’s film she is a bleeding stone, one that is not expected to portray any feelings. Nevertheless, she carries a strong emotional baggage within the confinement of the film.
Comparisons with Maria Falconetti’s Jeanne are inevitable, and Bresson was clear to express his feelings about her: “For want of truth, the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to draw tears.” (3)Again, Delay “performing” as Jeanne, plays things exactly the opposite way: her eyes are always looking down (just shedding tears at the very beginning of the film; her attitude is impassive; her responses are strong – seemingly in control, at peace, we nevertheless feel the immense burden that is upon her. Delay is not Falconetti, but not for lack of talent. But she’s not meant to be Falconetti, and her portrayal has little to do with what Dreyer intended to do with his protagonist. If Bresson saw a film as a work of art one has to become immersed in, and in which his actors (models) were the objects that served this purpose, Dreyer saw in performance and expression (the label “expressionism” wasn’t free) the tools he needed to achieve, if not the same thing, something very similar. Both reached their goals in a masterful but very different way.
Voices With(out) a Face: A Paradox in Action
“The noises must become music.” (4)
Aside from the almost aggressive “anti-expressionism” portrayed deployed in Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Bresson – like Dreyer – used the exact words recorded from the original trial (as is stated at the beginning of the film), making this a powerful dialogue driven movie, unlike most of his other works. There is little space to reflect here, as the dialogue is relentless, and the editing works wonderfully to keep this constant verbal action going throughout the whole film. In such films as Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956), we are confronted with very different types of camerawork, a slower rhythm, and the space to think about what is taking place – shots of the cell window, of walls, etc. But to achieve what he called “a non-historical truth” in Procès de Jeanne d’Arc Bresson makes a smart move, displaying only that which needed to be portrayed: the trial; the words; focusing on the process (therefore, the film runs the strange length of 65 minutes) to explore what lies beneath.
Another important aspect of the film is that the power of the visible is contrasted with the power of what we can’t see, what is suggested by only sound. Following his initial principles, Bresson avoids showing the people in the court, only suggesting their presence by their shouting voices – “Burn the witch!” – or by the rumours overheard between gaps in the interrogation. As such, we don’t see the faces of Jeanne’s condemners behind the cell walls in which she is imprisoned – only an eye, a part of a face – and we hear a conversation that takes place in both French and English.
This absence plays an important role in the film. The people, having nothing to do with the process, are not shown. Again, Bresson focuses on process. As such, we don’t see the priests’ faces at all, since they don’t share the same internal processes as Jeanne: in solitude, in her cell, in her torture. They distance themselves from it, creating two different spaces. Whether Bresson directly intended this – perhaps just him being truthful to the written description of the trial – is irrelevant, the final result produces this particular outcome.
In the end, we are confronted with the burning of Jeanne. Even in this Bresson remains true to his overarching style, in stark contrast to Dreyer’s film. While Dreyer chooses to show the people revolting, and the guards engaging in a terrible fight in an apotheosic ending, Bresson insists on not portraying the people, making us concentrate on Jeanne’s final destiny at the stake. Both construct powerful and compelling endings to accompany the final demise of our heroine.
A final reflection arises from all this: Do the hidden faces of the priests behind the cell walls and the absent voices (present, but floating in space, devoid of interlocutors) of the people in court serve as an analogy for Bresson’s ultimate irony? We can’t hear the voices, neither can we see the faces, and indeed, that something that is not shown ultimately serves a bigger purpose, contributing to the emotional impact of the film and its overall feeling of emptiness, abandonment and emotional sparsity. As such, the acting (or the non-acting), devoid of any palpable emotion (“the limit of the unexpressive” (5), as Susan Sontag, an admirer of Bresson but not of this film, once wrote), and the contrived and almost mechanical rhythm of the film do exactly that. They are all elements of the same paradox: subtract to add, deplete to fill, the ultimate Bresson experience. “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” (6) The aim, to create an emotional experience from the plainest field possible. And in that, the master excels.
- Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin, Urizen Books, New York, 1977, p. 66.
- Bresson, p. 2.
- Bresson, p. 65.
- Bresson, p. 10.
- “With Florence Carrz in Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, Bresson has experimented with the limit of the unexpressive. There is no acting at all; she simply reads the lines. It could have worked. But it doesn’t – because she is the least luminous of all the presences Bresson has ‘used’ in his later films.” See Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson”, Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 1994, p. 185.
- Bresson, p. 2.
Procès de Jeanne d’Arc/The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962 France 65 mins)
Prod Co: Production Agnès Delahaie Prod: Agnès Delahaie Dir, Scr: Robert Bresson Phot: Léonce-Henri Burel Ed: Germaine Artus Art Dir: Pierre Charbonnier Mus: Francis Seyrig
Cast: Florence Delay, Jean-Claude Fourneau, Roger Honorat, Marc Jacquier, Jean Gillibert, Michel Herubel