Monday, May 4, 2009

The Passion of the Joan or The Emperor's New Nudity

When Robert Bresson's curious pronouncements on his highly individual art first began to appear in the 1950s, critics were fascinated because his results were so dazzling. What he subsequently proved was that it didn't matter what his working practices were as long as they worked, as they did in Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and A Man Escaped (1956). When they didn't work, those same ideas weren't exactly invalidated, but it called Bresson's application of them into question. What critics noticed was that Bresson's minimalist mania was not so noticeable when it suited the subject, when his elimination of everything but the essential elements of expression seemed totally apposite to the material. A priest slowly dying in a soulless world or a condemned prisoner of war carefully plotting and executing his escape needed precisely the approach that Bresson brought to them.

One wonders what, if any, style could have redeemed the story of a petty thief with a Raskolnikov complex. (1) With Pickpocket (1959), Bresson seemed to follow his principles straight off a cliff. It was the first proof that his style was extremely limited. But if Pickpocket was cause for concern, his next film was cause for grief. Late in his life, Chuck Jones, animator of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, and Tom & Jerry, among many others, complained that most of the "animation" being practiced on children's cartoons was little more than "illustrated radio." Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc is not even good radio. And the Madame Tussaud wax exhibit is more animate than Bresson's Joan.

Depending on which axe one chooses to grind, Joan of Arc was wither a saint, a witch or a madwoman at one time or another in her brief life. I think it is safe to say that she was neither a saint or a witch, however much she may have tried to be either. And her testimony from her trial, which is a fascinating historical document in itself, is proof against insanity. I think that she believed in her voices and visions, but only because she was living in the 15th century, when such things were not uncommon. The difference, of course, is that Joan's voices were pro-French and anti-English, which is why her captors (the English) found it necessary to burn her at the stake. She quickly became a legend to the French, and many of them still believe in the stories of her military exploits. (2) To the British, she was the object of obscene rumors for centuries. She was canonized in 1920, and an astonishing film was made about her trial and execution, Carl-Theodore-Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, in 1928. Bresson thought so little of Dreyer's accomplishment that he thought he could top it. I cannot imagine anyone is his right mind who would think so. Obviously, when one claims, as Bresson did, that one's films have nothing in common with any others, it makes comparisons impossible. If I were to insists that, frame by frame, Dreyer's film is superior to Bresson's, he would have accused me of being so inured to theatrical films that use sets and actors that I was unqualified to properly judge his work. Too many critics have gone for this bait and insisted on treating Bresson's work as if it existed in a vacuum, leaving them nothing with which to compare it. The fact is, Bresson made two films that are undeniably excellent, that provide a standard with which to compare all his other films.

Trial of Joan of Arc uses the very same text that Dreyer used, the words spoken by Joan and her judges, transcribed from the trial itself. Bresson, always avoiding dramatic devices like the plague, shot his film invariably at middle distance from the "action," with utterly flat, television lighting. A typical shot features several people, all looking in the same direction (except Florence Carrez, who is usually staring at the floor), with one person doing all the talking and the others sitting stock-still as if petrified, their only concession to nature being the occasional involuntary blinking of their eyes. Bresson always insisted that this isn't the least bit stylized and that this is how human beings really behave. Since none of his non-actors has an interesting face, Bresson often concentrates on their backs and is as fixated on feet and shoes as Bunuel. (3)

At one point, Bresson uses a single shot of Joan lying supine on a table, surrounded by priests, which is supposed to suggest that she had been tortured. Bresson shot it that way in order to avoid the fakery of having to stage Joan's torture. But what about the fakery of Florence Carrez got up like Joan of Arc in men's clothing and a bunch of talentless French people re-enacting her trial and execution? Bresson was merely being selective with his fakery.

Bresson utilizes one shot, though from a different angle, that directly recalls the Dreyer film: when a white-clad priest extends a cross to Joan on the stake. In the Dreyer film it was Antonin Artaud who performs this beautiful gesture, which in the Bresson is reduced to the barest minimum of feeling and meaning.

In his superb 2003 commentary for the Criterion DVD edition of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Peter Cowie states that "Poor Bresson has been tarred with many a brush. So many film buffs assume that one has to be an ardent Catholic believer in order to appreciate his cinema." But being a religious believer is not what Bresson's cinema requires of one. What his work requires is a conversion to Robert Bresson and his exhaustively exclusive theories on the art of film. It requires one to become a subject of Hans Christian Andersen's naked emperor - in reverse. Bresson's emperor knows that he is naked - in fact his nakedness is a matter of principle. And his subjects, who reject every other emperor who wears even the most glorious and shimmering raiment, cheer their emperor's pallid and emaciated body in self-flagellating ecstasy.

(1) Bresson had an unrequited passion for Dostoevsky.
(2) As Luc Besson's ludicrous The Messenger (1999) demonstrates.
(3) On her way to the stake, Bresson shows us only Joan's bare feet and the feet of the crowd, and he even stoops to having one of them try to trip Joan as she shuffles past.

1 comment:

Ron Gallagher said...

I recall when there were only 2 or 3 people on my university campus who had heard of Bresson. Now everybody who's anybody has seen a few of his films. But he was never much understood or much liked by the mainstream. He is too demanding, and I guess you don't respond well to his demands. I know what Bresson said, but he only said those things to correct people's misconceptions about him. And I hope you aren't suggesting that because I think 'Pickpocket' is a great film that I can't also enjoy Godard or Antonioni. If that's what you meant, you're mistaken. I agree with your point about Cowie calling him 'agnostic.' Bresson was a definitely a believer.