[Originally published in The Seattle Weekly, 1998]
You leave behind a lot of the world outside when you step into a Robert Bresson film. One of the most ascetic, uncompromising filmmakers of any age, Bresson strips his films bare. Fastidiously faithful to detail, he shuts out all distractions (and that includes what we might consider acting) to create films that more resemble ritual than real life.
In The Trial Of Joan Of Arc, Bresson so strictly adheres to the Spartan medium shots that everything that breaks this formal plan becomes all the more arresting: the quill scratching notes into the trial ledger, the peering eyes of the British staring at Joan (Florence Delay) through a crack in her cell wall, and the lonely shot as she sits framed in complete isolation, still, reserved. Based on contemporary accounts of Joan’s trial for heresy, Bresson compresses the months-long ordeal into a series of interrogations interspersed with a few brief comments by her judges and onlookers. Fastidiously locked into a few unvarying angles, Joan’s world is limited to the court, her cell, and finally the courtyard where her execution are executed – even the onlookers, heard on the soundtrack, are pointedly omitted from the visual world.
The film addresses only the details of the trial. British onlookers confer with the bishops to guarantee a guilty verdict, a lone monk offers wordless advice to Joan during the questioning, the rabble calls for her death. It’s a conspiracy theory that Bresson turns into a spiritual quest. Stripped of all extraneous detail, removed from all historical and social context, the film focuses on Joan’s struggle between saving her life and saving her soul. Every moment of fear and doubt that cracks Joan’s fortitude, every quiet change of expression, is like a cry to the heavens.
Joan is restrained even for Bresson, who’s drilled the performers like soldiers: They deliver their lines without inflection and gesture only when essential. (Which is not to call them stiff; on the contrary, there’s an odd slackness to many of the performances.) The flatness of line readings removes the viewer from any involvement in the drama. The trial becomes more like a rite, the questions and answers a call and response that has long lost their immediacy.
So underplayed is the trial that conflict carries no force of doom. Where a film like Pickpocket at least gives the viewer specific details to latch on to—the art of thieving in fascinating minutia—Joan Of Arc is so stripped of action a nod takes on significance and walking from the bed to the door becomes an epic journey. In Bresson’s desire to reach cinematic purity, he’s created a film that is as often cipher as it is spiritual transcendence.
In the final moments, however, his hermetic approach comes to full fruition. After an hour of formal restraint Bresson offers beauty in the simplest of shots: Joan’s single pull at her chains, the silhouette of birds behind a canvas tent, a lone cross obscured in smoke, and his final devastating image which I won’t divulge here. As much as I love Bresson’s works, I’m rarely caught up in the sweep of his drama. The drama comes for me only at the conclusion – and then lingers for days after. Joan is ascetic to a fault, perhaps, but in my personal catalogue of great moments in film history the final minutes of The Trial Of Joan Of Arc has earned its place.
Copyright © 1998 Sean Axmaker