Saturday, March 20, 2010

THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (Robert Bresson, 1962, France)

 A zealous young lady wields a sword of justice, her spiritual warfare fought against foreign invaders both physical and metaphysical, in the English and the Catholic Church. Director Robert Bresson undresses the legendary heroine to reveal the naked truth, concealed beneath the veneer of historicity and mythology.

Bresson eschews passion and emotion and allows the stoic narrative to progress as a courtroom drama, and portrays Joan as a scared but fully self-possessed woman. Her dialogue is mostly from the surviving archival transcripts, but her actions are sublime and profoundly imagined: she looks towards the floor during the trial, as if these men are not worth acknowledgment, and lifts her penitent gaze only when responding. She is able to answer the direct examination, ripe with double-speak probity, simply and effectively and appease the Law while never blaspheming her Cause. Though the Catholic Church is the villain (with help from the British), Bresson never condemns them in a raging polemic: the truth of the deed is evidence enough. The Priests are shown as slaves to their Law, making legal decisions that contradict Justice; the hearing is reminiscent of Jesus’ conviction where Pilate washes his hands believing that the fault lies elsewhere: in Joan’s case with the British and the screaming mobs who condemn her as a Witch. But the murder lies squarely on the shoulders of the Church, even though there a few sympathetic to her cause.

Bresson structures the film with a plea from Joan’s mother instigating the second trial 25 years after the execution. Drums pound the rhythm of war, evoking the ghosts of soldiers marching to their fate: this tempo only bookends the film, the body is dominated by silence and softly spoken dialogue. Bresson spies on Joan through a hole in her cell wall, allowing an intimate contact that both creates a sense of reality and emotional distance. These scenes frame Joan in full body compositions, sitting on the edge of her bed, head bowed, or answering questions from the torturous inquisition.


Joan prefers the sexless and ragged clothing that masks her femininity and virginity, at once a rebellious declaration and a practical one, to safeguard her from sexual abuse…and prying eyes. Bresson disregards establishing shots and utilizes fade to black transitions between her cell and the court proceedings, capturing Joan in close up or medium shot compositions: her inactivity becomes an emotional declaration. The camera remains static through most of the film, allowing characters to walk in and out of the frame, as if the world is standing still. When the camera finally tracks with Joan’s march towards oblivion (and martyrdom) Bresson only focuses upon her bare feet. Florence DeLay possesses Joan as a modern archetype, her short black hair and gentle eyes transporting the spirit of the heroine into the 20th century.

Finally, Joan sates the zealous appetite of religious fervor that holds morality slave to doctrine. The crackling flames dominate the soundtrack while a dove takes flight towards the heavens. Bresson shows the Holy Cross obscured by smoke until it disappears entirely, and finally the burnt stake like an exclamation point (or phallic symbol) devoid of her charred remains alleging her physical and spiritual purity. The church abandoned Joan…but she never abandoned the Church.

Final Grade: (A)

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