Proces de Jeanne d’Arc (Bresson, 1962)

I love Robert Bresson. His films wiggle under my skin with their bare-bones approach toward visuals and sound design, forcing an interaction with the characters and motivations on a spiritually confined level. Yet, Proces de Jeanne d’Arc (Trial of Joan of Arc), Bresson’s take on the trial and subsequent final days of the French martyr, feels so dry, so composed, conundrums concerning her relationship with God, the voices of the Angels she hears, and the “Earthly Church”, begin to take shape in uncomfortable ways. At only 68 minutes in length, Bresson’s film feels like a snapshot of history, an incomplete jumbling of text book paragraphs and history lessons masterfully capturing the inadequacies of such an attempt. When British soldiers look through a crack in the wall at Joan sitting in her cell, they represent the viewer, only seeing a fragment of this woman’s life, destined to misunderstand her function and meaning. Many of these moments of judgment occur throughout Proces…, and it makes for a frustrating but engaging experience. Where Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette enable a setup of the physical world being explored, including outside exteriors to compliment character, Proces… only affords interiors, cramped close-ups, and silky shadows of black and grey, highlighting Joan’s inner turmoil but never making universal assumptions either. Bresson’s Proces…, like those of all great historical biopics, succeeds in complicating familiar images and iconography purported by traditional retelling’s of history, allowing for a mysterious examination of Joan whittled down to the essentials. Bresson achieves this dynamic in spades.

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