The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

“Bishop Cauchon: Do your saints hate the English?
Jeanne d’Arc: They love what Our Lord loves and hate what he hates.
Bishop Cauchon: Does God hate the English?
Jeanne d’Arc: Whether he loves or hates them I don’t know. I only know they’ll be driven from France or die here.”

‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, directed by Robert Bresson in 1962, is a stark and economical retelling of the French saint who was put on trial by the English and martyred. It’s difficult to write about this on the day after the UK has decided that its culture, political and historical ties with France are worthless and that the English Channel really should be a barrier to block rather than one to overcome. As with Bresson’s other movies, the film is typically austere. He avoids the stylised approach of Carl Theodor Dreyer and instead allows the words of the trial to deliver the impact of the event, rather than to display it through emotive performances. As such, it’s simply shot, it’s short, the sets are basic and there is very little music. The camera tends to focus on the participants of the trial using close-ups. The effect of this is to concentrate the narrative on the details of the historical events, it prioritises fact and evidence over interpretive stylising and rhetoric. It’s disconcerting to hear English voices scheming throughout the film, and, juxtaposed with the French, the sound weirdly discordant and intrusive. It’s a film built around the tensions between two countries that boils these tensions down into the fate of a woman, similar to his religious parablising in ‘Au Hazard Balthazar’ four years later. The performances are underplayed to the extent that they are almost static, but this only serves to enhance the stoicism of some characters and the enigmatic scheming of others. On a day when I wish my French was better so I could move, it’s tempting to suggest this should be shown in schools as a demonstration of how misguided the English can be sometimes.

Would I recommend it? Yes – with ‘Au Hazard Balthazar’ or perhaps Dreyer’s version which I’ve not yet seen but is on the list.

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