Sunday, 25 January 2009

A Tale of Two Joans

I have stated in several previous posts how enthralled I am by the films of Carl Th. Dreyer, and in particular his film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Rewatching the film recently for the first time in over a year and half, nothing has changed: within the first few minutes I was once more completely overcome.

A little over a year ago (in October 2007), the BFI ran a season on
Robert Bresson, and, having shamefully never seen a film by Bresson at the time, I took the opportunity to watch nine of his fourteen films within a relatively short space of time. These films included Bresson's own take on the last days of Saint Joan's life, The Trial of Joan of Arc.

During those few weeks toward the end of 2007, I grew from being completely ignorant of Bresson to having a reasonable understanding and a great admiration for his work (indeed, in my own way, I would even go on to pay tribute to him in my film
Paintbrush). Despite the accusations of austerity and coldness, there is something gripping and fascinating about his work, and I have a resolute belief that Bresson was, like Dreyer, nothing short of a cinematic genius. However, although Bresson and Dreyer were both geniuses, and both belong to the so-called transcendental tradition of cinema, their two approaches to a retelling of Joan's trial and death could scarcely be more different.

While I don't necessarily believe in comparing and contrasting different films based on the same text, I somehow find that with these two films it's simply inescapable. Perhaps it's my extreme love for Dreyer's film, or perhaps it's to do with their fidelity to the records of Joan's real trial, but for whatever reason I find it very hard to cast Dreyer's film out of my mind when watching Bresson's film (interestingly, I don't have the problem of not being able to forget Bresson's film when watching Dreyer's).

I suspect by now it's become clear that, for me at least, Dreyer's film is the superior of the two (and regular readers of this blog will know that I consider Dreyer's film as the greatest film of all time, something which I by no means say lightly). In saying this, I mean no disrespect to Bresson or to his Joan, which is also a great film. Having rewatched The Passion, I felt a strange compulsion to also rewatch The Trial and see what it is that makes The Passion, at least for me, the superior work.

In this consideration of the two films, I decided, perhaps wrongly, to cast aside the technical aspects of the film, and concentrate instead upon the way in which the narrative unfolds. Both films tell the same story; that of Joan's trial and the events which unfolded over the last few months leading up to her burning at the stake. They both claim to be based on the actual records of the trial, and both follow a very similar narrative trajectory. So what is it that makes the films so different? And what is it, from this point of view, that makes Dreyer's film have the edge (or is it really all in the execution)?

Well, at least part of the answer to the first question is easy: one thing that makes the two films so different is in their depictions of Joan herself. To answer the second question, we step into personal opinion. And, for those that are interested, my opinion is as follows...

Dreyer depicts Joan as much more of a victim than Bresson does. Although they undergo the same questioning, the same ordeals, Bresson's Joan is a wall of resolution, while Dreyer's breaks down in tears (Bresson's Joan cries only once, alone in her cell, while Dreyer's rarely has a dry eye – she is the model of a suffering heroine). In Trial, Joan is seen being tortured, still firm and seemingly unaffected, while in Passion, Joan faints at the sight of the torture instruments. Now, while some might argue that this makes Dreyer's Joan the weaker of the two, I would argue that in fact she is all the stronger for her suffering. In spite of it all, she too has the strength of her convictions, and because she speaks them through tears rather than stone, her answers are all the more powerful; though she suffers, she has a great inner strength. In Trial, Joan's famous answers ('Do you not believe that God would have clothes for him?') at times come across like little more than clever rhetoric, while in Passion it seems like they come from the very core of Joan's being. And it is for this reason that both Bresson's Joan and his Joan come across as less pious and holy than Dreyer's, and why Dreyer's film is both more transcendent, and more moving, than Bresson's.

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