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Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, aka Proces de Jeanne d'Arc) opens with Joan of Arc's mother reading a request for the posthumous rehabilitation of her daughter. The remainder of the film depicts Joan of Arc's 1431 trial for heresy at Rouen and her subsequent execution. The court, working in collaboration with the English, subjects her to relentless interrogation and even torture, but she refuses to renounce her stand. Only under duress does Joan eventually sign a confession; as a result, she is sentenced to life imprisonment. However, she later recants and is burned at the stake.
Robert Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc is noteworthy for its rigorous construction and economy of means. Nine interrogations in the courtroom and in Joan's cell are compressed into a little over an hour of running time. Working from actual trial transcripts, Bresson deliberately avoids the expressionistic imagery and heightened acting style of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In contrast, he shot the trial scenes as simply as possible, relying mainly on medium shots alternating between Joan and her interrogators. His goal was to place maximum emphasis on what was being spoken; Bresson writes: "My film was born of words, was constructed from words. My film is in questions and in answers, for it was in this form that the interrogations were registered." While dressing the characters in costumes, he also tried to avoid the usual trappings of costume drama. In his book Notes on Cinematography, Bresson writes: "Reject historical films whose effect would be 'theater' or 'masquerade'. (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.)" He says of Joan of Arc herself, "One would say that she was a more perfect being than we are, more sensitive. She combines her five senses in a new way. She sees her voices. She convinces us of a world at the limit of our faculties. She penetrates into this supernatural world but she closes the door behind her."
Robert Bresson (1901-1999), one of France's greatest filmmakers, directed only one medium-length film and thirteen features in a career spanning nearly fifty years. This was due partly to his meticulous work habits, partly to the inherent difficulties in getting financing to realize his idiosyncratic vision. Notoriously, Bresson preferred to work with non-professional actors because they don't "act." Referring to his performers as "models" (in the painterly sense), he liked to exercise complete control over their movements, rehearsing each gesture until it became automatic. In Notes on Cinematography, he writes: "To your models: "Don't think what you're saying, don't think what you're doing." And also: Don't think about what you say, don't think about what you do." In a similar vein, he tended to avoid overtly emotive facial expressions and line deliveries, hoping to reveal a character's underlying spiritual state by paring away the inessentials. He writes: "Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)"
Another of Bresson's distinctive traits as a director is his carefully constructed counterpoint between image and sound. There is no music in Trial of Joan of Arc aside from a drum roll at the beginning and a trumpet fanfare introducing the first interrogation. Instead, Bresson provides a carefully woven tapestry of dialogue and natural sounds such as footsteps, clanking chains and a dog's bark. Like the often fragmented visual details, the sound at times suggests Jeanne's point of view. Bresson said of the soundtrack as a whole, "I tried to render the rhythm of the text like a musical score."
Bresson's deliberately ascetic portrayal of France's most revered saint and greatest cultural icon was bound to generate controversy. Even the film's cinematographer, Leonce-Henry Burel, found himself at odds with Bresson; he recalls: "Here we had this sweet, simple, charming girl with the most marvelous, beautiful eyes, and Bresson would never let her look up at the camera. Never. She always had to look down, even when she was answering her judges. I told Bresson that if I believed in God, which I don't, I would look up when I thought of Him. [...] She was a mystic, a visionary... you have to be to lead soldiers into battle without even knowing how to use a sword. I was so furious I really let myself go, and Bresson didn't like it. He didn't want to have Joan look up because Dreyer had done that." As a result of the quarrel that ensued, it was Burel's last collaboration with Bresson.
Trial of Joan of Arc opened in Paris in 1963; it later played in New York Film Festival that year, but didn't open commercially in New York until February 1965. Bosley Crowther, reviewing for the New York Times, compared it somewhat unfavorably to Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), particularly in terms of Florence Carrez's performance versus the classic interpretation of Maria Falconetti. He says of the acting in general: "The accomplishment of the participants is their ability to be consistently motionless and either passive or severe. The impact--what there is of it--comes from the starkness of the scene, the monotony of the rhythm, the austerity of the end. One must commend the director for making his film state these things. One has to be frankly regretful of the lack of dramatic highs and lows." However, the reviewer for Variety was considerably more sympathetic to Bresson's approach: "Using non-actors, there are no false dramatics. This unveils another side of this oft-filmed tale, and the state and church politics of that century. [...] This has a simple beauty and depth that make it different from other forays into this territory."
Producer: Agnes Delahaie
Direction and Screenplay: Robert Bresson, based on the book Proces de condamnation e de rehabilitation de Jeanne d'Arc (1841), compiled by Jules Quicherat.
Cinematography: Leonce-Henry Burel
Editor: Germaine Artus
Art Director: Pierre Charbonnier
Costumes: Lucilla MussiniMusic: Francis Seyrig
Cast: Florence Carrez/Florence Delay (Joan of Arc); Jean-Claude Fourneau (Bishop Cauchon); Marc Jacquier (Jean Lemaitre); Roger Honorat (Jean Beaupere); Jean Gillibert (Jean de Chatillon); Andre Regnier (D'Estivet); Michel Herubel (Frere Isambart de la Pierre); Philippe Dreux (Frere Martin Ladvenu); E. R. Pratt (Warwick); Harry Sommers (Bishop of Winchester); Gerard Zingg (Jean Lohier).BW-65m.
by James Steffen