Nowhere is Bresson’s belief that all “art lies in suggestion” more apparent than in his 1961 film, “Trial of Joan of Arc.” Blindingly economical, weighing in at only 65 minutes, Bresson stripped the film down to its absolute essentials, exposing Joan’s interior struggle and delivering an intense, rapid sequence of events. He also managed to give us one of the most accurate – and sincere – portraits of Joan by laboriously excerpting the film’s dialogue verbatim from the transcripts of her original hearings and her posthumous rehabilitation trial.
At the time of its making, the popular image of Joan was that of an “earthy” peasant shepherdess and captain, a sexist stereotype furthered by Hollywood’s numerous dramatizations of Joan’s life. Bresson wisely avoids cliché, instead presenting to us a beautiful, intelligent women, a defiant philosopher of the soul simultaneously afflicted with self-doubt and fearful of her impending death. Rejecting historical reconstruction and concealing the layouts of the hearing room, jail cell, and outdoor arena where her public execution takes place, Bresson dislodged Joan from her historical setting and brought her into the present. He repeated this technique throughout his career, from his early film “The Ladies of the Bois de Boulougne” (an adaptation of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste) to his final masterpiece “L’Argent” (taken from Tolstoy’s short novel The False Coupon).
In his attempt to present a paired-down, near-documentary version of reality, Bresson further pruned his already spare cinematic arsenal. “Trial” was the first of his mature works to avoid narration, a technique he had become associated with in his previous three films (“Pickpocket,” “A Man Escaped,” and “Diary of a Country Priest”). He also eliminated a score for the film, leaving only the drum and bugle core to accompany Joan on her death march to the stake. His reasons were two-fold. On the one hand, he felt that given the brevity of the film, a score could only get in the way of the essence of Joan’s struggle; but more importantly, he heard in the text of the trial and in the rhythms of the exchanges between Joan and the priests a musical symphony all its own. His success with eliminating a score from “Trial” likely encouraged him to later reject the use of music in his films entirely, stating, “Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added. The noises must become the music.”
Perhaps the most striking element of the film is the way in which Bresson elevates Joan from those around her. From the very outset, Joan is photographically isolated from her earthly surroundings, a
separation that continues all the way to the end when she’s finally
expelled from this world by fire. Though she is often present in the same room with her interrogators, they never inhabit the same image, severing their inter-relationships and precluding the possibility of reconciliation. The effect focuses us on Joan’s silent struggle with herself, her soul, amplifying our own senses and making us hyper-aware of even the tiniest lilt in her voice or crease in her brow.
When Bresson accepted the Jury Prize for “Trial” at Cannes 1962, Otto Preminger stated, “We all have our Joan, but yours is the best.” Yet over the years, this film somehow hasn’t managed to gain the recognition and following it deserves, possibly overshadowed by the much more well-known “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by Carl Theodore Dreyer and crowded out of an innumerable field of popular dramatizations. It’s a tremendous loss, since “Trial” is both unique among its peers and easily one of Bresson’s finest achievements.
Last Word: “Trial” is a stunning tour-de-force of minimalist economizing that transcends the historical constraints of the events and delivers a Joan timeless and eternal.