My friends at Reel World Theology have begun a new series this year on reviewing the classics. I’ve already reviewed DeMille’s The King of Kings for their series. Here’s my latest, a review of Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, the *other* Joan of Arc masterpiece as a complete contrast to Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc:
When you think of Joan of Arc and the movies, which film comes to mind? For many cinephiles, the quintessential Joan film is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece,The Passion of Joan of Arc (read Josh Crabb’s review for Dreyer’s film here). Crafted only a few years after her canonization as a saint, Dreyer’s film has been recognized not only as an excellent historical look at the Maid of Lorraine but an emotionally affecting and timeless masterpiece of film.
Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc is only similar to Dreyer’s film in the historical setting, not in the formal approach. The 1962 film is composed of static, medium shots of people talking, following the sequential moments within Joan’s trial at Rouen. The film opens with the shot of feet walking down a hallway (a Bressonian touch), which are revealed to be Joan’s mother advocating on behalf of her daughter twenty-five years after Joan’s execution at the hands of the Catholic Church. What follows is the same trial setting as Dreyer, only stretched out as to be more historically accurate (her trial lasted 5 months, not the single day depicted by Dreyer).
The Trial of Joan of Arc is barely an hour in length, and there are no interludes; scenes are cut short abruptly, set end to end without obvious emphasis. The deadpan tone is a striking contrast to Dreyer’s overly emotive scenes. Susan Sontag writes, “There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.” Dreyer is the former, while Bresson’s approach is the latter, using a form “designed to discipline the emotions at the same time that it arouses them.” Where Dreyer fosters intimacy, Bresson creates distance between the viewer and Joan, notably through showing her from the point of view of priests and guards peering at her through a hole in the wall of her prison cell. “By repeatedly filming Joan through the keyhole of her cell, Bresson piques a desire for intimacy that he leaves tantalizingly unfulfilled and forces viewers to share the frustrated voyeurism of the English guards.”