The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), with its few settings, minimal action, and plenty of dialogue, reads more like a play than a film. Still, it retains Bresson’s particular formal style; in many ways, the extreme minimalism makes one more acutely aware of Bresson’s filmic tendencies.
In its short duration — 62 minutes —its few scene cuts draw attention to itself, as if inciting you to pay closer attention. Since the entire film is of Joan pleading her case, with dialogue taken from the historic transcripts of her trial, the film comes off a bit documentary-like; It’s somewhat like hearing someone read a history book to you. This both works for and against the film; its simplicity is endearing, yet keeps the film from flowering into a great cinematic experience.
To fill the void, and turn the subject into a formal piece of art, Bresson uses images and sounds to translate feeling into the viewer’s experience. Instead of just hearing Joan’s case, we are meant to feel her experience. The humiliation and hardships of her ordeal become clear when one sees the striking images of chains, or hears the incessant scratching of metal. There’s a sort of desperation to her struggle, as she is further demonized and abased, until the point where she begins to crack.
Though I only vaguely remember the details of Dreyer’s acclaimed masterpiece, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1929) — I saw it in a silent cinema class several years ago — I have never been so informed, both intellectually and emotionally, of the story of Joan of Arc. While references and dramatizations of the story are plentiful, and virtually everyone has heard it, Bresson’s detailed account — if so accurate — amends what has become a sort of mythical story into a realized frame. The person, Joan of Arc, becomes actualized and relativised; her disturbing ending is at once conveyed as the great humanist tragedy it has always meant to be.
No relation to the film, but whatever: