Friday, 23 April 2010

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc

"A mass in and white colours"

Words from Jean-Luc Godard's trailer for Robert Bresson's Mouchette

Jeanne is in prison charged with many crimes. The most grave of these is blasphemy. 

Jeanne and the men who judge her are never in the same composition. There is a rupture, an un-breachable wall. The rhythm of question and response is rapid. It is a harassment. She withstands, as if parrying their strikes. They ask, and she glances down as if consulting an inner voice. She responds, eyes lifted, in defiance. Her resolution is humbling. The strength of her fidelity to God and the courage in her disobedience towards the Church.

Persecution surrounds her - at first probed from the right and then later from the left. In French there is a word that sounds and feels such as the dynamic of this trial : impitoyable, meaning merciless and implacable.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc doesn't incite pathos or gather tears. It lets simple words and a person's presence open up a more intense understanding. There is a nobility and purity in the style and the blank performance that feels as if it is an extension of Jeanne's self. It gave me freedom, untouched by ploys to tease my sympathies or stir my humours. So much passion, and even a little humour, can come from observing this 'model' (Florence Delay), and seeing within. Performance can be a veneer. It hides the person who acts.

There is no music, save the drums that beat at the beginning and at the end.

Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc does not use adjectives. Only verbs and nouns. It renounces the ugliness of spectacle. It renounces the fustiness of historical reconstruction. Its history is not safe behind a pane of glass.

There is an immaculate profundity in the seemingly bare images: feet and hands, shackled and unshackled; the silhouettes of birds, voyeuristic and violating eyes looking into Jeanne's cell.

There is so much weight to the sound, to the shouts that snipe from offscreen demanding that the "witch"
be burnt. The roar of the fire is unbearable and not only because of what it means. Bresson once said that "a locomotive's whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station". With Jeanne, with the words she says and the sounds she hears, he brings to mind a whole world.

Finally, Jeanne is tied to the stake. A dog passes between the onlookers. It looks up. Of course, it doesn't understand what is happening. It is looking. To this dog Jeanne is not a witch and she is not a saint. She is. It cannot know why this murder is happening. The dog takes us out of the human experience and thus the shot refutes hate, fear and hypocrisy. It makes empty. It makes things be seen again.

It is hard to judge Le Proces de Jeanne D'Arc, if in fact we must judge it. It did not make me feel anything in particular. It made me know. It made me reflect. Although we do not know precisely what Jeanne was like, I thought "this is Jeanne". She was strong. She believed. She was killed.

"Last Summer when I filmed Jeanne, I was not concerned merely to make her sublime words resound. I hoped to make this marvellous young girl present for audiences today"

Robert Bresson


  1. "It cannot know why this murder is happening. The dog takes us out of the human experience and thus the shot refutes hate, fear and hypocrisy. It makes empty. It makes things be seen again." - Wow!

    Stephen, what you have written is like a Bresson movie by itself. Bresson said "Empty the pond to get the fish". That is precisely what you have done. Removed all the artificial trappings of a review and got the subjective, affecting experiences of the film out. A strong contender for the best review at this site. Kudos!

  2. "It cannot know why this murder is happening."

    I haven't seen this movie. I don't think it's available in America. No doubt it's a beautiful film, though. It has to be, to have inspired poetry like that.

    Your eloquence has been sorely missed, Stephen, and greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  3. JAFB,

    Thank you very much indeed!

    Bresson's films, even the ones that aren't quite as good, are different and special in so many ways.

  4. Bob,

    Thank you for the kind comments. I really appreciate them.

    I'm surprised it's not available in America. If this review has encouraged you to get hold of it, I'm glad.

  5. Very thoughtful review of an important film in Bresson's filmography that perhaps best exeemplifies his austere and sparing style. It is not remotely in a league with Dreyer's film (which is one of the supreme masterpieces of the cinema in every sense of that word)but you really convey the essence of Bresson's film when you rightly say it is devoid of feeling, but is suffused with character revelation and reflection. It's a notable achievement.

  6. Thanks very much Sam.

    I really do think Dreyer's LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC is not in the same league as Bresson's or Rivette's JEANNE LA PUCELLE (!)

    I get more of a sense of the human and the saintly in those films. I find Dreyer's film a little aggressive in showing us the viciousness of the judges or the wild eyes of a martyr.