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Joan of Arc, as played by Florence Carrez in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, is vastly different from Falconetti’s depiction of the same character in Dreyer’s 1928 silent The Passion of Joan of Arc. This earlier film was released just eight years after Joan of Arc’s canonization, which marked the Catholic Church’s recognition of their wrongful collaboration with the English six hundred years earlier. Possibly as a result of this event, Dreyer’s film depicts Joan of Arc as a lively and identifiable humanized saint. Perhaps the then-recent canonization prevented Joan of Arc from being frozen into an unapproachable icon and facilitated Dreyer’s task. Thirty-four years later, Bresson’s sound film is more of a historical archive than a dramatic reenactment. Susan Sontag declared Bresson’s film a failure, which she attributed to Florence Carrez’s poor acting: “There is no acting at all; she simply reads the lines. It could’ve worked. But it doesn’t.”

The Trial of Joan of Arc retells the story of the maid of Rouen’s trial by the French clergy. In a disclaimer at the beginning, we learn that the film is based on a transcript of the actual trial: everything said in the courtroom by Joan or the clergy is from this record. The film is less an interpretation of the Joan of Arc story, a study of a character with doubts and weaknesses, than it is the reconstitution of a trial. Bresson keeps the audience at a distance, preventing us from fully entering the space of the movie and from identifying with Joan. There are no establishing shots of the courtroom for example, so the space is never clearly defined. Similarly, most of the shots of Joan of Arc are medium shots or close ups of her bound feet and knees. Her face is rarely the focus of Bresson’s film, unlike Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. She is as impenetrable as the courtroom. Again and again, Bresson refuses to satiate our curiosity and leaves us frustrated observers, unable to make sense of the fragments he offers us.

Still, the audience is made to sympathize with Joan of Arc, dreading the moment she will be burned at the stake, but they are not allowed to identify with her. This is no unintended side effect of Bresson’s style: he deliberately keeps us at a distance. Carrez’ acting is as cold and unsentimental as the camera that quickly cuts between her and the clergy. The interrogation does not faze her; she quickly throws the lines rather than merely reading them, rarely leaving a pause between the bishop’s questions and her answers. Her resoluteness is beyond any identification. There is not one ounce of doubt in her quick replies: she is Joan of Arc, the icon. A couple of times in the film, Bresson gives her more humanity—he turns the unapproachable figure into a scared child when, in the courtroom, she desperately looks to the priest for advice.

However, those moments, where humanity pierces through Carrez’s performance, are scarce. Most of the time we are like the bishop staring through the peephole into Joan of Arc’s cell: disappointed to find everything in order, and wishing for promiscuity and melodrama. Just like he wishes Joan of Arc would yield and cry, we want her to doubt and to be afraid. Bresson preserves Joan of Arc as pure legend. All that remains is an absent voice, like the ones guiding her to war in order to lift the siege of Orleans. Her body is inexpressive, and she appears but a soulless agent, malleable and replaceable. She is a voice, a tool, a model.

Historical legends are often like fables: they have a valuable moral component. The story of Joan of Arc becomes greater than the girl herself, her body a mere device that allows the narrative to be fulfilled. As Bresson films the remains of Joan of Arc burned at the stake, it is clear it could have been anyone in her place. What matters are not her doubts and personal grievances, but her ashes. The body has to burn for the story to become a legend.