The Lives of the Saints: Robert Bresson’s Joan of Arc

12/17/2009 8:58 AM |

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Robert Bresson’s directorial career was one of perpetual distillation, obsessively spent pursuing a strict economy of means, austerity of expression, and purity of form, and at the height of his powers Joan of Arc offered a perfect historical figure through which the French perfectionist could plumb the iconoclastic asceticism not only of the 15th Century teenage soldier, but of his own uncompromising style—only Jesus Christ himself could have provided a better subject. Following his two previous films (A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) about imprisoned men struggling for corporeal and spiritual freedom, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), which screens tonight and tomorrow night at Anthology Film Archives, explores the confinement and execution of one of history’s legendary martyrs by paring down narrative cinema to absolute essentials, with Bresson’s de-dramatized performances and rigid, precise, and repetitious visual grammar reenacting official records of Joan’s inquisition by a kangaroo court of Papal hardliners and sympathizers to English rule.

As played with fierce resolve by Florence Delay, Bresson’s Joan is less a persecuted saint than a stoic rebel, defying her accusers’ politically motivated denunciations of her claims to direct contact with God. Systematic and institutional cruelty, whether in the form of small town pettiness or merciless capitalism, constantly proves the source of earthly corruption in the work of Bresson; here Joan is pit against a Church hierarchy whose authoritarian fear of her personal, unmediated relationship with God is chillingly evoked by the filmmaker’s insistence on expressionless acting and robotic blocking—the clergymen are less sinister than complacently soulless. Joan’s strength, meanwhile, comes through in simple yet powerful Bressonian touches: a stunning high angle opening shot of Joan’s mother’s robed legs striding down a hallway toward the courtroom (later echoed in Joan’s final march toward the stake), and in her defiant glares back at enemies peering through a chink in the wall of her cell.

Thus Joan’s story, usually the repository of the most profound and embarrassing pathos, becomes in Bresson’s hands something strange, sober and subtle. But there’s also a sense it too perfectly fits his cinematic vision, at least compared to the more complex tales of suffering of his directly succeeding masterpieces, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Since Bresson remains so fastidiously true to the historical record, Joan is presented twice over at a remove—because the trajectory and outcome of her trial is well known, its only surprises emanate from the slightest cinematic adornments, as in a shot of doves perching on a canopy as Joan burns at the stake. Even the soundtrack, which Bresson typically uses for simple yet startling juxtapositions of off-screen sound and on-screen action, remains relatively unexploited, with English cries of “Death to the Witch” shouted from beyond the frame in an unintentional (self-)parody of courtroom melodrama. More to the point, Bresson’s best moments generate friction from the trappings of the modern world and his almost pre-enlightenment understanding of spiritual faith; in his take on Joan, any awe for the young woman is rendered almost matter-of-fact due to her already venerated status, not nearly as miraculous or disturbing as a donkey’s Christ-like innocence in Balthazar or a post-May ’68 youth’s suicide in The Devil, Probably. Yet I must qualify any criticisms: less-than-brilliant Bresson is still Bresson, with evocations powerful and mysterious. Take the end of the film, with a crowd of clergymen rising to watch Joan’s immolation as clouds of smoke engulf a giant cross; a drum roll accompanies the last shot of her settled ashes. Bresson suggests Joan lives on in something far beyond the image, a devastating conclusion to a film that so strictly renounces anything but the necessary in depicting its heroine’s fortitude, her sole possession.