The Trial of Joan of Arc Review

With Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, you get more or less exactly what it says in the title. Like Dreyer’s astonishing The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Bresson’s film relies almost entirely on the historical transcript of Joan’s interrogation and trial – with only the addition of eye-witness accounts from the rehabilitation that led to her sainthood, to inform the circumstances of her burning at the stake – but Bresson’s film is even more minimalist, portrayed with characteristic simplicity, naturalism, neutrality and humanism.

Captured for her part in leading French troops to war against the English and her support of Charles VII, Joan (Florence Delay) faces trial under the direction and influence of the English judicial system, which demands that an example is made of her. During the interrogation in the court room and in her cell, the 19 year-old girl reveals that she has acted on the advice of heavenly voices and visions of St Catherine, St Margaret, St Michael and even God himself, and that she continues to hear the voices daily, even in captivity. Such admissions make the work of the religious authorities difficult, since it is in their interest to demonstrate that she is a witch who has acted on the word of the devil, in order to discredit Charles VII who has been enthroned through Joan’s efforts. Joan is challenged on her wearing of men’s clothing, her claims to be a virgin and she is charged with using witchcraft to win victories in battle and with allowing herself to be revered by the people as a saint. Against the relentless pressure of the court to explain or renounce her behaviour however, Joan resolutely maintains the correctness of her actions, only answering what God will allow her to answer and maintaining her allegiance to the king, even if it means that she will be burnt at the stake for her beliefs.

As would be expected from a Bresson film, all this is depicted with utmost naturalism, without any actorly mannerisms or flourishes and few directorial contrivances. The actors stick to delivering the known transcripts of the trial with little in the way of expression or inflection, yet the film – through that inimitable Bressonian style – still manages to bring across the solemnity and the gravity of the situation with an almost documentary-like naturalism. Using non-professional actors, Bresson captures the sense of these being real people in real time, undergoing deep emotional and spiritual conflicts. In Florence Delay, there is none of the proto-feminist warrior of Milla Jovovicz in Luc Besson’s The Messenger nor any of the unearthly spirituality that suffuses the features of Falconetti in Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Yet despite being less overtly demonstrative, Delay under Bresson’s undoubted careful direction, leaves you in no doubt whatsoever of the deep underlying resources of Joan’s physical and emotional strength, her belief in her purity and the strength she gains from it, allowing the real words of Joan (remarkably preserved from 15th century records) to demonstrate what a remarkable woman she was.

There is a sense that this is very much an experimental film, with Bresson striving to remain faithful to the limited material available and its inherent strengths – the actual trial transcript and some eye-witness accounts – further refining his method to be purely in service of this vital material, attempting not to add to or influence it in any significant way. If that means the film only runs to 61 minutes, then Bresson is content with that and will not pad-out to make it run to a conventional film length. Directorial influence is impossible to avoid however, and it would be a mistake to think that Bresson has directed with artless simplicity. Every single frame of the beautifully composed monochrome photography and every gesture of the actors – no matter how small or seemingly unaffected – has doubtlessly been calculated and bears the mark of Bresson, but the director’s greatness is to at the same time minimise the viewer being aware of it, giving you nothing but a stark account of an extraordinary event and allowing the viewer to connect as fully and truthfully as possible to what occurred.

Again, porting the French MK2 release, the Artificial Eye release of The Trial of Joan of Arc carries across all the benefits of their treatment of their Bresson titles. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.

The print is transferred to DVD in anamorphic 1.66:1 and the film looks marvellous here, with beautiful tones, showing well-balanced whites that don’t glare and the same level of detail as the deep blacks. The print is not highly contrasted, but there is a full range of greyscale tones. There is however a suggestion of chroma tint that appears to give the print a bit of a greenish tone and causes some colour bleed around slightly haloed edges. I didn’t see a mark or scratch on a single frame of the print, and the only other issues are a slight softness, a hint of grain and some minor light flicker. I’m not sure whether this is due to negative flicker or compression artefacts, but it’s not prevalent and is not a major concern. In the main, this is a quite impressive image.

The audio is also very robust, with warm reverberation and good tone in the voices. There is a faint level of background hiss and some distortion on louder noises, but this is generally a very strong, clear and well-rounded soundtrack.

Optional English subtitles are included and are fine, clear and read well.

Interview with Robert Bresson (5:05)
In an interesting little interview from 1962, Bresson gives his reasons for making a film on a subject that had already been examined many times. He talks about putting a modern outlook on the subject and away from the traditional emotional response, as well as his method of working with non-actors.

Robert Bresson and Jean Guitton (4:08)
More wonderful archive material from the film’s première, Bresson is interviewed along with Jean Guitton of the Académie Française, who gives his immediate reaction to the film as simple and truthful.

Florence Delay (20:03)
Delay returns to the location of the filming 40 years later and discusses her memories of the film, its making and what the character of Joan of Arc means to her.

Georges Duby and Laure Adler (39:19)
A 1994 French history programme called (strangely for a programme about Joan of Arc) “Burning Issues of History” looks at the historical and political context of the period and gathers together the known facts of Joan’s life using images and film clips (mostly from Marco de Gastyne’s 1928 silent film, La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne D’Arc). This is a very interesting background look at the myth, the legend and the reality behind a figure who became a symbol of the French Republic.

Speech by André Malraux (21:34)
Made on 8th May 1961 on the occasion of the 532nd anniversary of the liberation of Orléans by Joan of Arc, André Malraux gives a rousing speech (audio only), commenting on Jeanne’s military achievements as a French woman, as well as her pronouncements and rehabilitation as a woman of God.

Trailer (2:20)
The original trailer consists of the testimony from Joan’s mother in the prologue and Joan’s opening statement to the court, along with critical notices. It is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc is a fascinating film from an important director with a unique approach to filmmaking. The minimalist approach is particularly effective in this film, allowing the real transcripts of the trial and Joan’s own responses to speak for themselves. The DVD presentation is superb, with very good A/V quality and an excellent selection of extra features which inform the making of the film and the historical background of the events presented.

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