A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, 1962)


There are two great Joan of Arc films: The other one is Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). But comparing them is tricky: Dreyer's film was made in a different medium. Silent movies are not just movies without sound: They necessitate entirely different narrative techniques. Dreyer let the stunning quality of his images of the suffering Joan and the cruel and often grotesque interrogators and the crowd at her immolation do much of the business of characterizing and story-telling. According to an admirer of Bresson's, screenwriter-director Paul Schrader, Bresson disliked this about Dreyer's film, and it shows in the deliberate blandness of face and image in The Trial of Joan of Arc. The settings and costumes are generic and undistinguished, and they are lighted flatly, giving the film the banal look of the era's television dramas. As usual, Bresson has chosen unknown or non-professional actors, starting with his Joan, Florence Carrez. (Carrez was her mother's surname; she later took her father's surname, becoming Florence Delay, the name under which she became a successful novelist, playwright, and actress.) Compared to Renée Falconetti's magnificently haunting Joan in Dreyer's film, Carrez's performance is almost deadpan: She unemotionally responds to even the most provocative of her judges' questions, which Bresson took verbatim from the transcripts of the trial. On the whole, I think Bresson's austere style serves the material: When Carrez sheds a tear or even slightly raises her voice, it makes an emotional impact. By withholding so much dramatic visual information throughout the film, Bresson makes a few incidental moments the more powerful, as when we see a member of the crowd stick out a foot to trip Joan on the way to the stake, or when, as she is ascending the steps to the pyre, a small dog comes out of the crowd and stares up at her. On the whole, I prefer Dreyer's film, but I'm glad to have Bresson's as a contrast.