Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Proces de Jeanne d'Arc, Robert Bresson)

Joan unornamented

(Robert Bresson's film is available for streaming on Filmstruck, which will shut down by November 29; is still available though less readily on Amazon; should ideally be on a streaming service accessible everywhere including the Philippines (Filmstruck is confined to the USA) but alas isn't.)

The first film to come to mind viewing this stony ground of a picture is Carl Th. Dreyer's silent film, a series of gigantic closeups shuffled through at speed, arguably the most revered and the best-known version of the story.

Robert Bresson's response? "Grotesque buffooneries."

Call The Trial of Joan of Arc (Proces de Jeanne d'Arc) Bresson's more measured response. Where Dreyer was profligate in his production--he had an elaborate castle set built complete with large courtyard and torture chamber then largely ignored his elaborate construct to better focus on faces--Bresson films cobblestones, heavy wooden doors, a crack in a cell wall (a crude spyhole) through which light gleams, suddenly interrupted (Someone stepping up to peer at Joan). Not quite true that Bresson avoids closeups but his is an oblique style: instead of Joan's face he looks at her feet padding across the floor or her hands cuffed with thick manacles (did her captors think a nineteen year old girl--embodied by the slim Florence Delay--capable of overpowering her guards and escaping?). And it isn't true that Bresson's Joan is almost totally emotionless--early in the film after her ankles are shackled to a massive beam she takes a brief moment to cover her eyes sob through gritted teeth. 

Sound as always is important in a Bresson film: here chains clatter iron bolts slide home weighty doors slam shut; you hear unseen crowds jeer and make comment; on occasion you hear a command in English and in the flow of French the familiar words seem specially startling--Bresson's way of reminding us perhaps that English is the language of superpowers, that it's used is still used to dictate the terms on which a young non-English speaking girl can be oppressed. 

But in Bresson's carefully shaped soundscape I submit is a structuring absence: the voices Joan claims to hear. She discusses them describes them even quotes them to us but not once do we directly hear them. Bresson leaves it to us if they're really from God or strictly in her head--not for him to help us decide.

The difference between Delay's face and Falconetti's says nearly everything about the difference between the directors' approach; that the girls wear similar haircuts only emphasizes this difference. Falconetti is all eyes, her oval face and plump cheeks softening the stark staring near-madness found in them (you can readily imagine her staring into the overhead sun, harsh rays burning away her retinas). Delay's eyes are downcast almost as often as they are level, not so much a girl demure as a girl sullen; when she addresses the council she radiates hostility like a chunk of glowing coal. A rebellious daughter dragged before her stern father, if you like, forced to account for her disobedience the night before.

Bresson like Dreyer draws upon the trial transcripts but unlike Dreyer doesn't prune his dialogue to focus on theology and men's clothes--Joan here also talks of Fairy's Trees, mandrake roots, her military adventures. She seems less ready to martyr herself, to open her arms wide and welcome spears and arrows, less victim and more a person capable of victimizing grown men. You can believe Delay's Joan (unlike Falconetti's) wears armor despite her slight build, has led soldiers into battle. 

The trial turns into a protracted struggle, with the panel hurling one accusation after another and Joan replying "Beware of judging me" and "I won't accept your judgment." Occasionally Joan steals sidelong glances at a nearby priest who seems to be giving her nonverbal prompts--who is he? Why is he helping her? The judges notice but don't censure the priest, or remove him from the trial--why? Bresson doesn't explain. Men gaze secretly through the crack at Joan--why? What do they hope to learn? Joan seems aware of their gaze--why doesn't she say something? Bresson doesn't elaborate. The priestly ally does add the salve of hope to our feelings for Joan, even if we know the ultimate outcome--in my opinion Bresson's cruelest touch (his version of oil of clove applied to soothe a drilled tooth, in preparation for future sessions). The voyeurism adds an erotic flavor to the priests' abuse of Joan, implicates us as well: how are we different when we also watch her suffer for our entertainment? We do pay for the privilege--does that make us better?

Bresson's style has always been spare but this time you have to wonder if he pushes spareness too far. He's done adaptations of novels and memoirs--Georges Bernanos, Tolstoy, and (indirectly) Dostoevsky. Bernanos' material proved particularly fertile--Diary of a Country Priest is a personal favorite, Mouchette has a memorably oblique end. His transposition of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is I think audaciously brilliant, reducing the Russian author's murderer to a mere street thief, yet still managing to wring the full measure of drama (and a startling eroticism) out of the felon's story. 

But the transcript of a trial conducted six hundred years ago? Without descriptive prose (We have no idea what the Maid of Orleans looks like) or attempt at characterization, just what was spoken and written down? Bresson brings us unadorned words in his elliptical visual style, and yes it works--eventually you tune in to the film's verbal sparring, get some sense of the legal and theological intricacies involved, involve yourself in the drama of this nineteen-year-old arguing for her life before a panel of vindictive old men. 

Perhaps not the most poignant film Bresson has made then or since but perhaps not meant to be. An echo from the past, an audio recording if you like from a mic taped to the underside of the bishops' table (or video footage recorded through the crack in the wall) smuggled to present day--the roughness of it, the crude imagery precisely wrought, that's what gives this film a particular if forbidding poignancy. 

Once Joan's fate is sealed and she's led to the stake Bresson allows himself a smidgen of allusive poetry: Joan's feet follow as the camera glides down the cobbled street, unaccountably shuffling (Is she limping? Acting goofy?) along the damp drain channel; a leg sticks out to trip her but she stumbles past the cruel jab. A dog lopes to the camera (a foreshadowing of Bresson's donkey?); a pair of doves no the shadow of a pair of doves flaps onto a canvas roof--presumably the same one hanging over the bishops' heads as they watch the girl burn--flutters off again (Her liberated soul?). Arguably the most austere work of an austere filmmaker, and whether you like it or not depends on whether you like the filmmaker and his style (I do) if you like his style pushed as far as it is pushed in this film (I--well I have to let that marinate in my head a while). 

First published in Businessworld 11.9.18 


Unknown said...

A nice appreciation of the film and Bresson's style. English was used very literally -- it was the language of the British invaders who fought the French army led by Joan and who arrested and tried her.
I remember Bresson's Lancelot du lac is also interesting -- with waist-down shots of knights moving in heavy armor.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. I write about Lancelot elsewhere on this blog.