Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
Whereas Bresson’s fourteen-year-old Mouchette lurches through well-meaning indiscretions virtually unnoticed and dies much as a sparrow would, the same artist’s nineteen-year-old Joan (the Joan) lurches through well-meaning indiscretions noticed by throngs and dies one of the most celebrated deaths ever recorded. Well aware of the anonymity directly devouring nearly everyone, in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) he takes advantage of the presence of the same kind of conflict (apropos of mysterious scintillation) befalling so many of his other protagonists—only now uniquely drawing attention to its monumental (cosmic), world-historical consequentiality. This is a Joan pointedly indifferent toward panoramic spectacle and personal glamor. It is a film about an incendiary affair of the heart entangling each and every one of us, and as such it couldn’t be farther from an antiquated “historical drama.” (There is, therefore, an arresting affinity to this work in Arthur Miller’s stage play, The Crucible, concerning a protagonist (headed, as it happens, to being forgotten) chewed up by the Salem Witch Trials.)
Notwithstanding its jingoistic optimization, the saga of Joan of Arc shines for Bresson strictly in terms of the written record of the proceedings of her trial at the hands of that segment of the French bishopric in league with the fifteenth century English army of the occupation of France during the Hundred Years War (a mere flash in the pan as compared with the essential war being staged here), an account supplemented by observations of an eye-witness produced twenty-five years after the event. (A preamble drawing attention to that focus notes that this is all the reliable substance we have about Joan, about whose person there is not so much as a surviving sketch of her appearance.) Thus the film boils down to the Prosecution’s efforts to confirm that the young Going Concern demonstrates a rebellious, heretical endeavor toward Christian bedrock, as countered by the future Saint’s insistence that “God needed a simple girl” to get things moving (a True Young Girl, as Catherine Breillat would maintain much later).
In order to free up the “simple” matter our very concerted niche auteur finds compelling, the scenario unfolds as repeated comings and goings of the girl and her adversaries between her cell and the courtroom nearby, as commandeered for the showdown by the military in what was a chateau near Rouen. The black and white cinematography shrouds this movement in murky shadows amidst dingy stonework, going on to show mainly the lower parts of the bodies in motion. The visual presentation of the trial itself largely consists of cuts between two mid-range camera positions locked upon Field Marshal Joan and the Bishop of Beauvais and his clerical assistant. Peppering this transit are shrill taunts from English troops, “Death to the Witch! Burn her!” So it is that the confrontation, between the shackled girl (left to fight the case without assistance) and her variously uniformed and armed male opponents, comes bathed in the chilling grip of sadistic odds.
Offsetting the deadly leadenness of this collision is the agile and expertly combative presence of mind of the Defendant. Though critically encompassing the understandable kinetic shortfall of the precocious youth, the jist of the film’s French title, Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, [the trial—that is to say, not only the test but the test of the “process,” the dynamics of her sensibility], is that the protagonist includes an extraordinary mobility within her repertoire (a sense perhaps brought to bear by a line of fault-finding which discloses that the French King, her associate, had provided her with five horses). And it is to that dynamical priority that she adheres in facing not merely legions of dubiously enlightened adversaries on the ground, but the entire edifice of rational/ascetic civilization.
Ironically introducing the attack of the Prosecution, we have at the outset Joan’s mother, shown in gloom as a pair of feet and the hem of a long black tunic, being supported by two clergymen, also represented by that lower range of their cassocks. (These halting footsteps are unforgettably taken up by the film’s ending, where Joan’s bare feet trip along a stone path in sunlight, much as a little girl would pad amidst her farmyard, but in fact en route to the stake.) As she proceeds under the auspices of the omnipresent Church (church bells tolling), her mother declares, with a severe factuality the ponderousness of which serves to register high-pressure omnipotence, “I gave birth to a daughter. She was baptized and confirmed. I taught her to fear God and respect the Church, as far as her age and station would allow. She never offended the faith. But envious people, wishing ill on her, brought her to trial. They charged her with false crimes, condemned her and burned her.” Then we receive the credits, followed by a page summarizing Joan’s capture by French troops (opposed to the French dauphin/king) who sell her off to the English, followed by her deposition: “My name is Joan. I’m 19…” All the while a drum beat sounds, shrill and explosive as a machine gun, apt for an issue of inertia tracing far into the future. There we learn, on her being drawn into the hopefully incriminating question, “Have you learned a craft?” that her craft has been “to sew and spin,” implying much more about herself than the matter-of-fact, causal-bound questioners could fathom.
Having heard from the partisans of elemental certitude, solemnity and fear—all of which of course her family subscribed to, exerting pressure upon her to that effect, as they could—we are readied by this dark film to contemplate the extent to which Joan’s “faith” flies in the face of the Dark Ages. In the deposition, she swears on the Bible to tell the truth. This she does without hesitation. But at that orientation moment she also quietly demurs in face of the Bishop’s transparent, overbearing assumption that “truth” is well within everyone’s range. “You will tell me the truth.”/ “The truth but not all.” As the testimony moves apace, we receive evidence to the effect that her engagement with an unruly and yet all-consuming (because especially comprehensive) truth all but capsizes her campaign as falling into a domain of duress. This moment of truth constitutes the unique and riveting drama of a film one might, if careless, regard as falling far short of reaching the emotional power embedded within the historical narrative. After that first day in court, she is led to her cell, curtailed by shackles at her ankles and wrists and, after having her wrists relieved, she has her ankle constraints further fastened to a floorboard. In nearly total darkness she covers her face and cries, as the full weight of the hatred toward her makes itself felt, and also the difficulty of conveying her benign disposition.
In court next day, she has clearly attained to processing her liabilities into some kind of fortitude based upon the inspirational overture that has carried her such a long, strange way. The Bishop demands she swear an oath of fealty to his holy court and she, now poised and handsome, parries along lines of his lacking credibility. “God sent me. Return me to Him.” On his showing outrage and declaring, “This makes you suspect,” she answers with, “Beware of judging me.” Perhaps this rejoinder involves confidence that her troops will prevail; but also, and most tellingly, it involves her sense of authority as demonstrably more lucid than that of her learned adversary. Coming to full stride in broaching a sufficiency not to be found in Church doctrine (and thus overcoming in a special sense the deadly odds), she posits as best she can her thrilling “process” as eclipsing the fusty thrust of the Bishop’s procès. It is, however, clear from the terminology of her plea that her innovative instinct stops short of completely obviating the deity she was taught to fear. Therefore, her testimony is a dizzying mixture of mysticism and convention, which drives the proceedings through abstruse and lengthy pursuit of a most elusive conclusiveness.
The nub of Joan’s defense against the charge of blasphemous rebellion concerns her articulation of a cogent process (a dynamic) at the heart of the world in terms of “a great light.” As a presence having been suddenly extirpated from a campaign of heady success, Joan, for all her youthful self-mastery, would be in crippling shock; and her subsequently wielding an intense and volatile ordinance of combativeness as well as love takes her into errancy as rich and fascinating as it is covert. (If there was a film charging the viewer with astronomical, unwavering attention, this is it.) Her easily misplaced trump card can be quite straightforwardly alluded to for its tonic results—“Every day I need it”—but she’s working from out of a slippery species of gymnastics with little tolerance for slip-ups, and, in having to put it into words where she is violently harassed, Joan enters upon as murderous a virtual impossibility as that claiming Mouchette. At some indeterminate default level she has seen fit to extrapolate the awe and joy-inducing creativity of her singleness in terms of a bevy of ecclesiastical movers and shakers, namely, Saint Catherine, Saint Marguerite and (above all) Saint Michel. In conversation with a dictatorial and death-dealing enemy, she goes on to elaborate the “great light” as “an angel’s voice” (as if to say, you haven’t begun to know about the sublime, but I can scare the shit out of you along lines of your own leading lights—a fatal overestimation of her effectiveness in marshalling the ways of political power, but important to savor in becoming conversant with a peculiar killer, and not, as so easily assumed, a plucky poetess/nun). She rattles off to the assembled divines an account of her military operations as co-ordinated by some bad-asses up in the clouds. The angel “said I would raise the siege of Orleans, and I did.” Saint Marguerite told her she would be wounded at Tourelles and go on to prevail. Her Intelligence Corps had emboldened her to proceed in this vein, with regard to those British buggers. “I’ll force your men to leave… If they won’t, I’ll kill them.” This bid to be blood-curdling has the panel of priests uncomfortably curious about her lines of supply. “How do you know the visions are of women?”/ “I see their face” [the great light” touching, as it does, upon a range of solicitude for a host of possible players—all faceless in the strictest sense].
After this startling aggressiveness, the chastity panel set their sights on her being a sexual monstrosity. They begin by picking away at her strictly male attire. “The Holy Scriptures say it is a terrible sin for a woman to wear men’s clothes.”/ “Both dresses are the same to me.” Then the skirmish centers upon a report that, as a young girl, she would dance naked in the woods with other girls her age. They would dance at a so-called “fairy tree” and Joan was quick to declare, “I saw no fairies at the tree…” On having gone out on quite a limb, and sensing she had slipped up, she begins thereby to reel in the provocation and enunciate as best she can the entirely phenomenal nature of her endeavors—so enraging everyone in sight and yet, to her, a presumably self-evident step forward. (This balancing act is woven through many stages of a densely detailed dialogue, a significant portion of which concerns the elicitation, by way of her uncanny confidence, of zeal amongst her countrymen, nearing the point of a breakaway religious cult.) Whereas she had toyed with the judicial panel in noting that she had been visited by her ghostly (fairy-like) advisors and been prompted “to answer you fearlessly,” and, moreover, had specified that her testimony would not “tell all” because the “all” involves state-of-the-art information for her King’s ears only (“Tell us!”/ “The voice forbad me “), she does manoeuvre quickly to (somewhat) rescind the spectre of a Saint Michel who includes her on his direct dial. “I spoke of his comfort not his voice.”/ “Have you seen him bodily?”/ “I swore not to say it.” When things get slipping and sliding like that, there is often a command from the Bishop, “On your knees!” After one such occasion, Joan fires back, “My angel has never failed me…”
As the trial pounds on, there is less premium upon rhetorical crossfire and more dependence upon openly physical violence and visceral righting. An English soldier on guard at her cell door scoffs, “She slept with the troopers and she’s still a virgin? It’s grotesque!” A priest confronts her in her cell, “You’re not a virgin!” She replies, “Yes, I am.” Then the interview goes on to present, “You’re sent by Satan!” Her riposte—“I belong to our Lord, Jesus Christ”—would be a resort to her split-seam fastball. On having a delegation of women confirm directly that she is in fact a virgin, the English guard responds, “I’m having her chains doubled… If it’s her virginity that gives her strength, we’ll make her lose her virginity.” A contingent of clerics, appalled that she has not been provided with legal counsel, departs the proceedings. She is given rancid food and becomes ill. She is tortured on the Wheel and taunts her jailers, “Tear me to pieces! I’ll say nothing more!” This dimension of the narrative is punctuated by remarks that elucidate the physical trial of her running awry the “process.” An especially incisive instance is her reply to the heresy hunter’s question, “How did you know it was an angel’s speech?”—“I had the will to believe it.” The trial has headed into a region where she is put on notice to cherish and cultivate as never before the ecstatic genius of her heartfelt sensuality, as embarked upon a deadly collision with world history. Thus the dark moment in her cell when she cries out, “What are my followers doing? Have they forgotten me?” offers us a taste of her desperation taking hold. This would be an offshoot of her brushing aside the priests’ grotesque preoccupation with her clothes—to wit, “We offer you a dress”—with “I won’t take it till God wills it. I firmly believe He’ll save me.” A young, sympathetic priest quietly warns her, “Your vision’s betrayed you, Joan. Return to the truth…”
The denouement of the disclosure of this ancient struggle serves to bring about how urgent it remains for us today. Joan’s deeply problematic prospect of returning to the truth, or at least the purchase upon truth and its wit she evinced at the outset, is presented to us in those final moments with great dramatic force. The young friend went on to say, albeit in a facile context, “Correct your mistakes;” and it is precisely the weight of correcting—or, more to the physical point, righting—oneself which endows this film with heart-rending (albeit subtle) power. Following closely after the friendly advice, we hear once again, from a source keenly resenting her temerity, “Correct your mistakes, Joan. If not, your soul will be damned… Will you revoke?” The desperation about being abandoned by those hitherto cherished as compatriots does not, during this part of the confrontation, overtly register on the quite regal bearing and visage of Joan, as depicted by actress, Florence Delay. She replies with calm vigor, “My words and deeds speak for me.” There is a cut to the courtyard and the preparation of the stake and firewood. A stairway to the kill is hammered together with finality and chilling commonness. Back to the Bishop, who lords it over her, “Repent or you’ll burn… We’ll read you the sentence… You have rashly sinned … pretending to have revelations from God…pretending to have visions of His angels and the saints.” The British overlords protest his giving her a chance to avoid execution, and he declares, with Jesuitical correctness concealing an incorrect lust for dominance, “I must seek her salvation.” Perhaps she senses the rabid fraudulence of that generosity, or perhaps the screams of the mob and the screams of the Court Clerk, “Revoke! Revoke! Revoke!” have, for the moment, shattered her courage, for she bows her head and, drained of all vigor, becomes tearful. She had momentarily rallied—in face of the edict, “We have decided to give her warnings”—in terms of, “Even in the flames I will maintain what I have always said.” But now she was willing to repeat the terms of revocation against her rebellion. (Even here, though, she stages a little counter-attack—“If the Church advises me, I’ll sign [knowing, perhaps, all about that creaky bureaucracy]. / “Sign or you’ll burn immediately!”) “All my words against the Church I revoke. (Up in smoke, then, her peppy riposte to, “Will you submit to the Pope?”/ “Send me to him.”/ “Will you submit to the Church? / “I answer to the Church on high.” And also her [perhaps ragged but patently operative] skeptical brush-offs to anathemas like, “The Court decrees that you have sinned”—“I’ve done no wrong.”) “Your voices were to deliver you. They have failed you.”/ “Yes, they have.”/ “They weren’t from God.”/ (She silently agrees to this [in fact not completely calamitous] gambit, by nodding her assent.)
On her signing the Confession, her tormentors are quick to put her in what they reflexively consider to be her intrinsically inferior place. “Give her woman’s dress.” Also asserting their dominance, they are grimly pleased to inform her that, although she will not burn, she will spend the rest of her life in prison for having sinned in so lurid a way. Soon a delegation from the Court has rushed to her cell, appalled that she’s back in that damn military tunic. Truly exhausted now, she tells them, “When I wore the dress, the jailors beat me up and an English lord tried to rape me.” And yet at this moment she found within herself the strength to revoke the revocation. They complain, “You swore you wouldn’t!” And she strikes back, I never swore.” During this friction she is seated on her cot, her back to them. “I forsook the truth through fear. I forsook my course not to fail God.” Earlier she had defiantly declared, “I should die if not for the revelations that comfort me every day.” She then falls back upon her bed and states, “I’ll die, but don’t burn me,” a sign of her occupying a tight and rather precious courage. “My body’s untouched. Don’t burn it into ashes.” Bresson’s exegetical comb through the primary sources of this legendary event delivers to us a rich tapestry of conflictedness in face of a momentous juncture. She is granted Communion and acknowledges that the bread is Christ’s body and “my deliverance.” “Where will I be tonight? God willing, I’ll be in Paradise…” The Bishop declares with satisfaction, “Like a rotten limb I decree you to be thrown out of the Church and handed over to secular powers. We reject you and forsake you.” She asks for a cross and is given one that has been quickly fabricated from twigs. She kisses it and calls out to Saint Michel, Saint Catherine and Saint Marguerite. We see her little girl’s bare footsteps and hear the mockery of the mob. Also in view are a small dog regarding the hubbub, and two doves soon flying away—elemental loyalty, peace, love and grace, decidedly far from the fretful center of mainstream history. (A fretful touch at the end is the occupying force expunging any traces of Joan—“I don’t want a single hair to be left!”—and burning those offensive, and possibly revered, clothes in the conflagration. With the flames reaching all around her, she tells herself, “The voices were from God. Everything I did was God’s command. My voices have not failed me. My revelations were from God…” The delicate composition (process) of consciousness that haunts every second of this work exacts a restraint impossible for so young and simple and horrified a figure to negotiate without mishap. She calls out, “Lord Jesus,” as her head collapses forward and death comes about. The iron cross her young friends proffer toward her cannot but fall far short of sublimity. As the smoke clears, we see a charred tree trunk, and nothing else.
However, the film has ignited her legacy in a most audacious way. It has treated us not as heartbroken partisans of the Maid of Orleans, though the sight of her crude little slippers being efficiently garborated (on top of the sight of her fluttering little feet rushing to a horrible ending) evokes a huge personal charge. But instead it has activated for us a most memorable, epic instance of our own joy and confusion. During a moment of finding the enormity of her situation too much to bear, she calls out in her prison cell, “If you love me, tell me what to say to these churchmen!” Joan feels an initiative of creative love and, being a “simple girl,” she ardently plunges into an effort of apt response to this endowment of powerful solicitude. Thus commences a schismatic struggle for precedence between the simplicity of heeding carnal promptings and the simplicity of heeding social promptings moored to civilizational authority. She signs her Confession with an X; and some would say she is fortunate in thus being an outsider with regard to respectable learning. That stance has tipped the scales in favor of addressing a conscious motion from out of input by her own stake in spinning and sewing preparedness, an input the paradoxical nature of which only one as simple as she would will to believe its startling cogency, and thereby unlock many hearts—even, and especially, those living nearly six hundred years after she was presumably squelched, put in her place by the powers-that-be.
One such kindred spirit is filmmaker and lightning rod, Catherine Breillat, who for nearly the full extent of a long career has been assailed from all sides by the equivalent of, “Burn the witch!” Her first film, A True Young Girl (1976), was, as was Malick’s first project, directly under the spell of Bresson’s daring cinematic logic. Choosing thereby to revisit the “process,” she managed to scandalize a far broader range than the clergy and the English—in fact having that first effort totally banned for nearly twenty-five years. Two weeks from now, we’ll examine that walk on the wild side.