“There are a million places to put the camera, but there is really only one.”- Ernst Lubitsch
Robert Bresson’s Le Proces De Jeanne D’Arc is a film about two things; the distance between and overlapping of separate worlds, and the reconstruction of a young woman freed from myth. What’s remarkable is the clarity of these themes and the precision in Bresson’s methods. His is an algebra that both provokes and truly allows us to see.
Bresson, in an interview around the time of Jeanne’s release, compared himself to an electrictian, a tradesman who must expose the wiring before he can begin to repair it. The comparison is correct; Bresson in Jeanne lays bare the collected wires of history and legend and begins to correct and fix misconception and mythology (not least by building his screenplay from the genuine surviving transcripts of the trial), to find and display his sought-for true essence, or rather essences in Joan herself, the world of the prison in which she is held, and the wider world of France, the French Church and England in 1431. There is no hint of patriotism in this film; one feels that such subject matter is almost terminally trivial to Bresson, and so the grandiose, hyperbolic and finally impersonal and alienating sweep of the patriotic epic (alienating as it is so generalised and thus detached from the feeling and relation to one’s country as experienced by the individual) that has tempted other tellers of this story is avoided. Avoided too is psychoanalysis, for Bresson is not particularly interested in the reality of Joan’s divine visions, but rather in practical demonstrations of resolve, strength-amongst-persecution, spiritual freedom and moral principle, all of which have a meaning for Joan which places her outside of the society which judges her. Perhaps it is here we find the root of the representation of Joan as a “young modern girl” which Bresson admitted to intending, the portrait of a being of elegance and strength who suffers the predjudice and abuse of a patriarchal society but, despite a momentary weakenss later recanted, continues to oppose it until her death. Susan Sontag complained of Florence Carrez as being the least “luminous” of Bresson’s modeles, but the beauty of this Joan, and Carrez’s performance, lies in what is so normal, so flinty, so understated about her.
Bresson understands what most makers of films about historical figures or events fail to; that the attempt to show what that person or that event meant to all people in all possible positions results only in a confused project (often both ideologically and aesthetically), not a complex one. Bresson shows us only the worlds essential to this history, and then dedicates himself to charting the frictions and gaps between these two worlds. These worlds are Joan’s (in this case, the imprisoned Joan), which is the world we see in the most detail, and that of the Chuchmen and the English leaders, which we are mostly afforded glimpses of and even then are shown mostly only in terms of how it relates to the prison-world of Joan. The paradox is that we feel we understand both these worlds and the other worlds which are kept off-screen (the worlds which are offered a form of representation in those off-camera English cries of “burn the witch”, which suggest expanses of the courtroom and the exterior crowds of onlookers that remain invisible to us). Through these acts of separation and bringing together, of displaying the distance between the worlds and the results of their momentary interactions and entrances into each other, Bresson has revealed precisely enough for us to feel we have truly seen all we need to see to reach a point of knowledge and understanding. The medieval has become open and inhabitable for us, it’s strictures, textures and details known, even as we may feel disgusted by its barbarism, its bigotry, its violence. An extra and key fissure of understanding arises when one places the film in the context of the rest of Bresson’s oeuvre, and realises how these traits of barbarism, bigotry and violence are not just confined to a single historical period, but are a fundamental, ever-present element of our contemporary society (as portrayed in the likes of Au Hasard Balthasar, Mouchette, Le Diable, Probablement, L’Argent etc). Thus Bresson has managed to create, between the screen and the audience familiar with his works, two more worlds which may seem remote but are actually always in communication with each other, which enter and exit each other; the world of history as represented by the 15th century of Bresson’s film, and the 20th or 21st century world that is known to the audience. Bresson has bought the period and the event home to itself, and home to us.
We are helped in reaching this understanding by being allowed to dwell upon certain actions and passages; Bresson was a master film-maker who managed to invest his work with a continuous, often rapid momentum and yet also create moments of great suspension. In Bresson a shot can feel eternal not because of its duration, but because of it’s immediate, self-evident and almost overwhelming significance, its power heightened by a certain sense of stillness and a total understanding of the effect of mise-en-scene, framing, gesture. It is for this reason that Lubitsch is quoted at the beginning of this piece. Bresson always knew- morally as much as for any consideration of style- where to place the camera and as such we feel the power of each shot and each movement reach us fully intact from some distant place.