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The Trial of Joan of Arc
Robert Bresson’s 1962 film THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC is the second of three Bresson films to be released by the BFI on Blu-ray. Review by Gary Couzens.

The story of Joan (Jeanne) of Arc. heroine to the French, martyr (and later saint) to the Catholic Church, has been a fixture of European culture since her lifetime. In fact, a poem, “Chanson en l’honneur de Jeanne d’Arc”, by Christine de Pizan, was written in 1429, while Joan was still alive. Only a century and a half later, Shakespeare included her as a character in Henry VI Part 1. Since then, she has featured in stage plays, operas, art and music. When cinema arrived, representations of the Maid of Orléans were not long behind. The first film was from 1898, Jeanne d’Arc, directed by Georges Hatot, followed two years later by Georges Méliès’s take on her. Both of those were short films, but Cecil B. DeMille’s 1917 feature Joan the Woman told the story as a dream of a British soldier in the trenches of World War I. Given such a strong role for a young actress, it’s not surprising that each generation has had its Joan of Arc. Ingrid Bergman played her twice, in 1948’s Joan of Arc (directed by Victor Fleming in Hollywood) and 1954’s Joan of Arc at the Stake (directed in Italy by her then husband Roberto Rossellini). Jean Seberg played her in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) and more recently so did Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson’s The Messenger (1999). In Jeanne’s native France, Jacques Rivette made a two-part six-hour film, Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), starring Sandrine Bonnaire and in 2017 and 2019, there were two films directed by Bruno Dumont, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Joan of Arc. There are plenty of ways of looking at Joan through modern eyes, particularly feminist ones. For one thing, her outward androgyny – cutting her hair short and insisting on wearing men’s clothes – was seen as heresy, and was a reason for her trial and sentence.

However, the big beast in the room was made in French in the silent era by a Dane: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), with an indelible performance by Renée Falconetti. Like Bresson’s film, that dealt solely with Joan’s trial and execution. Bresson did meet Dreyer (he calls him a “nice man” in the 1971 BFI interview which you can hear on the BFI’s Pickpocket disc) but was on record as disliking the film. You have to commend his ambition in seeking to outdo a film which by then was a canonical classic.

The Trial of Joan of Arc

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) is derived from the court transcripts. It is effectively told in flashback as it begins with Joan’s mother (we see only the back of her head) testifying at Jeanne’s posthumous trial in 1456 which nullified the charges of heresy. Then, after the credits, we go back to 1431 and Jeanne (Florence Charrez, who in her later career went as Florence Delay) has been captured by English allies and sold to the English. Her trial takes place in Rouen, with a tribunal made up from the anglophile University of Paris and presided over by Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau).

Bresson’s film refines the methods he had used in his previous three films: the use of non-professional actors (or “modèles”) directed to deliver their lines with a minimum of theatricality and its associated “acting”, the increasingly spare direction and elliptical editing. Often a part stands in for the whole: often Jeanne is framed that we see only her hands, or her legs and feet, but not the more conventional facial closeups. Yet such spare imagery often has considerable power, for example the final shot of the charred stake where Jeanne once was. The soundtrack is similarly pared down so that individual sounds have an impact. There is no music score, other than some bells at the start and drumbeats over the credits.

The Trial of Joan of Arc has an odd place in Bresson’s filmography, and has sometimes been overlooked as it followed three of his recognised masterpieces (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket) and was followed by two more (Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette). It’s Bresson’s shortest feature at just over an hour, and was his first historical subject (of only two, the other being 1974’s Lancelot du Lac). After a run of three films with male leads, it begins a trio of female leads – I’m counting Balthazar as such for Anne Wiazemsky’s character Marie, though the film does have a (literally) asinine lead in Balthazar the donkey. With these three films – the third is Une femme douce, from 1969 – how women are treated and sometimes degraded by society became a key theme of Bresson’s work. However, viewed on its own merits, Bresson’s film stands up well in a filmography which, if a little sparse (thirteen features in forty years, plus an earlier short) is one of the greatest in world cinema.

The film played in competition at Cannes in 1962, where it won the Special Jury Prize, shared with Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse. (The Palme d’Or was won by the Brazilian film O pagador de promessas (Keeper of Promises), now a film of some obscurity, outside Brazil at least.) Bresson’s film was released in the UK in early 1963.

sound and vision

The Trial of Joan of Arc is one of three Bresson films to be released on Blu-ray by the BFI, following Pickpocket and simultaneously with L’argent. The disc is encoded for Region B only. Given an A certificate for its original cinema release, the film was previously a PG for home viewing but has more recently been uprated to 12, for references to sexual violence.

The Trial of Joan of Arc

The film was shot on black and white 35mm, and was the last Bresson film to be shot by Léonce-Henri Burel, who had been born in 1892 and had begun his career in the silent era in 1914. He and Bresson made four films together, a consecutive run from Diary of a Country Priest to this. (He continued working until 1971 and died in 1977.) Cinema had gone widescreen a decade earlier, but Bresson and Burel had continued to shoot their films together in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until Pickpocket. With this film, they used a wider ratio, 1.66:1, which Bresson used (with other cinematographers) for the rest of his career. Being near to the Golden Ratio of classic painting (actually nearer to 1.61:1), it was a common choice for European filmmakers in particular. The Blu-ray transfer is derived from a 4K scan and looks fine. Blacks are solid, and detail and greyscale seem accurate.

The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. As I say above, there’s no music score, but dialogue and sound effects are well balanced. English subtitles are available by default for the feature and trailer, though are optional if your French is up to the task. The film contains some occasional English dialogue (such as “Burn the Witch!” from offscreen as Joan is led to her trial at the start of the film) which isn’t subtitled.

special features

Commentary by Kat Ellinger
Given how short the film is, you feel that Ellinger could easily have gone on longer (maybe over a black screen?) and has to hurry to wrap things up as the film ends. She herself says that it’s only when the film is nearly over that she finally gets to the subject of witchcraft, which Jeanne was accused of, and was thought by some to be the cause of the visions and voices she sees and heard. This enables Ellinger to make a short digression into the history of the persecution of witches in cinema, including Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General and Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer, not comparisons you often hear made when talking about a Robert Bresson film. Given the inevitable time constraints, Ellinger’s commentary covers a lot of range, detailing Bresson’s filmmaking methods as you might expect and the film’s place in his career, but also examining Bresson’s depiction of women and their suffering at the hands of a patriarchal society, whether from a past time or a contemporary one. She’s not above criticising Bresson at times, calling him out for arrogance and snobbery (as if any other films had any value at all), not forgetting hints of sentimentality – from someone usually resolutely unsentimental – when looking at his female characters and their treatment.

An Introduction to Robert Bresson (28:42)
For a video item not made specially for this disc release, this is bang up to date. On 7 June 2022, as part of a BFI Southbank Bresson retrospective (at least their third, following ones in 1981 and 1999), Geoff Andrew provides us with a useful overview of the director’s work, illustrated by extracts from his films. Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, all but one of those extracts has been removed from this recording, leaving the one from the film which the BFI has rights to, namely Pickpocket.

Theatrical trailer (2:23)
This is interesting to see how the French distributor tried to sell a film whose subject matter would be well known to its intended audience. It shows the opening sequence with Jeanne’s mother (taking up half the trailer’s length), followed by text screens (principal credits and a list of prizes won) and then the start of Jeanne’s trial. That list of prizes was presumably in order to sell a film whose director was never an especially commercial prospect, reflected in the small budgets he usually had to work with.

The 'purifying' fire is lit

Stills gallery (2:54)
A self-navigating gallery of production stills, all black and white, with no posters this time.

Archive shorts
The BFI is fond of making use of its extensive archive to add short films which have no relation to the main feature, but go off on a tangent from some of its themes. There is a Play All option. The three shorts take up the theme of Jeanne’s controversial use of male attire and her taking up a traditionally male role in commanding an army, to a look at how male and female roles became less separated in an age when such things could be captured on film.

Women’s Work in Wartime (7:54)
From 1918, a look at how women filled the workplace while their menfolk were away at war. So we see women at work in munitions factories, on the farm, selling tram tickets, driving lorries, often dressed appropriately for the task in hand.

Masculinity in Modes (1:06)
Made in 1931 (though silent), this stencil-coloured item was part of Eve’s Film Review, a cinemagazine aimed at the many women flocking to the cinema. We see the latest fashions from Paris, which (gasp!) incorporated many aspects of male clothing into its women’s wear – skirts cut to resemble trousers, the Louise Brooks-style bobbed hair of the models. These clothes are certainly still on the feminine side of androgyny, though.

The Legend of Joan of Arc Ballet (1:48)
From 1958, this is a short extract from The USSR Today, a Soviet-made news magazine aimed at Western viewers. Unlike Bresson’s or Dreyer’s films, the ballet isn’t based on the court transcript but on Friedrich Schiller’s 1901 play The Maid of Orleans. This Joan, danced by Violetta Bovt, isn’t in ballerina dress but a tunic and tights, with a cape giving the impression of trousers.

The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to twenty-four pages. There’s a spoiler warning at the start, though that won’t be necessary for anyone with a knowledge of the history. The main essay, “Translating the Trial of Joan of Arc from Medieval to 1960s France” is by Lillian Crawford. It begins with an acknowledgement of the predatoriness of Jeanne’s trial and execution, of the ways that she affronted the patriarchal society of her time while remaining steadfast in her faith, and Bresson’s recognition of the story’s relevance to his own time and his intention to make his version as far away from Dreyer’s as he could. She also discusses some contemporary references which now require some elucidation, especially outside France: Jeanne’s torture evoking the use of torture by the French in the then-current Algerian War of Independence.

“Beneath the Smoke: The Trial of Joan of Arc” is an essay by Richard Combs. It places its emphasis on Bresson’s filmmaking, such as the interrogations and answers being filmed almost as a kind of musical dance, with some consideration to Florence Delay’s performance, as a student of twenty, only a year older than Jeanne had been. (Delay went on to become a novelist and translator, with only occasional film roles afterwards.) The booklet continues with credits for the films and extras. In lieu of notes on the three archive shorts, there’s instead an essay by Lillian Crawford, “‘The Clothes Are a Small Matter, the Least of All Things’”, which ties in the themes of the short films with Jeanne’s transgressive use of cross-dressing five centuries earlier.


Often thought of as one of Bresson’s more (relatively) minor works, The Trial of Joan of Arc remains of considerable merit, both in its own right and as a response to one of the cinema’s great works dealing with the same story. It is well presented on the second of three Blu-rays of Bresson films to be released by the BFI.

The Trial of Joan of Arc Blu-ray cover
The Trial of Joan of Arc
(Procès de Jeanne d’Arc)

France 1962
65 mins
directed by
Robert Bresson
produced by
Agnès Delahaie
written by
Robert Bresson
L H Burel
Germaine Artus
Francis Seyrig
art director
Pierre Charbonnier
Florence Carrez
Jean-Claude Fourneau
Roger Honorat
Marc Jacquier
Jean Gillibert
Michel Herubel
André Régnier

disc details
region B
LPCM 2.0 mono
special features
Commentary by Kat Ellinger
An Introduction to Robert Bresson
Theatrical trailer
Stills gallery
Women’s Work in Wartime short film
Masculinity in Modes short film
The Legend of Joan of Arc Ballet short film

release date
8 August 2022
review posted
8 August 2022

related reviews
A Man Escaped
The Devil, Probably
Lancelot du lac
The Passion of Joan of Arc

See all of Gary Couzens' review