The Trial of Joan of Arc

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Synopsis

The legendary story of Joan of Arc’s trial and conviction is powerfully retold in Robert Bresson’s minimalist masterpiece.

Working from the official transcript of the 15th century trial, Bresson shoots Joan’s ordeal with a serene simplicity that reveals her vulnerability and her resilient faith.

A transcendent and moving evocation of human suffering and spiritual liberation, The Trial of Joan of Arc remains a powerful exploration of religious virtue with one of cinema’s most haunting and poignant finales.

Picture 9/10

Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc comes to Blu-ray through BFI. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. Though BFI's notes don't provide much information around the master I'm pretty sure the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 2K restoration performed by MK2, which in turn came from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. The disc is locked to region B so North American viewers will require a player that can playback region B content.

Despite the film running only an hour BFI have given the film a substantial bitrate and file size on the disc allowing a lot of room to breathe and I have to believe that this fact plays a little into how well this presentation has turned out. The encode looks spectacular, the film’s very fine grain structure rendered perfectly, never looking like noise. The fine intricacies of the costume and the setting all look sharp and crisp, and not once does the film ever come out looking soft. Gray scale is impressive and the level of range present between the blacks and whites is very wide with clean blending between the varying tones. Blacks are also deep without flattening out details in the shadows. Smoke in a handful of sequences (like those that come at the end) is also rendered cleanly and naturally without any banding artifacts popping up. Everything is smoothly rendered.

The restoration itself has also been incredibly thorough and only a few very minor blemishes remain. Even the opening credits look impressive. Altogether, from restoration to final encode, this is an unbelievably gorgeous presentation.

Audio 6/10

The dual-channel PCM monaural soundtrack is not aggressive in any way, shape, or form, but it’s clean and sharp, dialogue even managing to feature some range. It doesn’t sound like excessive filtering has been applied and damage is not an issue at all. It’s a simple presentation but it sounds good.

Extras 7/10

Of BFI’s recent Bresson titles The Trial of Joan of Arc seems to receive the least amount of love when it comes to supplements, a shame since it does appear to be one of the filmmaker's more overlooked films. At the very least they have commissioned a new audio commentary, this one interestingly featuring writer and critic Kat Ellinger. Ellinger makes mention early on how the film can be viewed as relatively minor work (I’ll confess I forgot about it until BFI announced this disc), but she finds it effective and moving and she uses her time here, all 65-minutes of it, to explain why the film stands out to her. Though it will of course come up here and there she otherwise intentionally avoids talking about Bresson’s “style,” so to speak, and focuses more on what likely attracted Bresson to the story, or myth, of Joan of Arc. This of course leads to discussion around the complex portrayal of women in his films, the filmmaker addressing the forms of oppression women can and have faced without portraying them as helpless victims (Mouchette comes up more than once as a comparison), Bresson even appearing to “channel” Joan through a modern context with loose political connections between events depicted in the film and France at the time of the film’s release, also brought up in the included booklet. She even compares this portrayal of the historical figure to her portrayals in other films. Ellinger keeps the track focused and on point without wasting time, though she still throws in some fun little asides here and there, like when she briefly gets into the “religious” film genre, which ranges from simple dramas to the exploitive. She keeps this all rather brief since it has little to do with the film at hand, though I’ll admit to a tinge of disappointment she didn’t dig into her genre knowledge a little more. At any rate I found it a nicely assembled and well researched track.

BFI then includes a 29-minute introduction of sorts featuring Geoff Andrew, which was recorded at a Bresson retrospective from June of this year (2022). Andrew uses his 29-minutes to prep the uninitiated for what to expect from Bresson’s work, explaining his “style,” his use of “models” as opposed to “actors”, and how the director wished to use film (or “cinematography”) to capture the inner workings of the subjects in his film. He then talks about specific elements and moments from a few of his films, using clips (though most are not shown here, I assume due to rights issues). To those familiar with the director there probably isn’t all that much new here, but it may indeed prove to be an excellent crash course for those still new to his work.

Sadly, that ends up being about all there is to the on-disc supplements. There’s a trailer for the film along with a small 3-minute self-playing gallery presenting a number of production photos and a couple of behind-the-scenes photos. BFI also throws in a few films from the archives. There’s the silent 8-minute 1918 propaganda film Women’s Work in Wartime, which features women filling in for the men off fighting the Great War, the jobs filled ranging from ammunition manufacturing to running public transportation and cleaning windows. There are then a couple of newsreels, called “cinemagazines” here, one showcasing the latest in 1931 French fashions entitled Masculinity in Modes (over a minute) and then the other presenting excerpts from a Russian ballet around Joan of Arc entitled The Legend of Joan of Arc ballet. The first one is silent and has been stencil-coloured and presents models showcasing fashions that are “modern and masculine with a feminine touch.” The latter has sound and presents footage from the ballet. Composer Nikolai Peiko also appears. The inclusion of the first two shorts may seem odd, though this ends up getting cleared up in the included booklet, where Lillian Crawford provides an essay that makes mention of the absurdity at how some of the charges brought against Joan were based around what she wore (like trousers), her choice of wardrobe being seen as too masculine. She then carries this on through to the first two archival features (the absurdity around the expectations of what women wore through history) before writing about the Russian ballet.

The included booklet—of their usual high standard—makes up for the lack of on-disc content specific to the film itself. It starts off with an in-depth essay also written by Lillian Crawford, who covers the actual trial and examines how Bresson adapts it. She briefly puts a focus on the torture scene in the film, juxtaposing it with the 1960’s Algerian War of Independence. Richard Combs follows up with an essay examining Bresson’s film with mentions of other film adaptations of the trial, including Dreyer’s and Otto Preminger’s. A section around the disc’s supplements then features the previously mentioned essay by Crawford about the shorts included here.

Again, not packed, but the booklet and the included commentary provide some helpful insights into the film.

Closing

Of BFI’s Bresson titles it’s the least packed feature-wise, but it includes an excellent commentary alongside a sharp looking new presentation.

BUY AT: Amazon.co.uk

 
 
Directed by: Robert Bresson
Featuring: Florence Delay
Year: 1962
Time: 65 min.
 
Series: BFI
Licensor: MK2
Release Date: August 08 2022
MSRP: £14.99
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.66:1 ratio
French 2.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region B
 
 An Introduction to Robert Bresson (2022, 29 mins): film writer and programmer Geoff Andrew discusses Bresson's oeuvre in this talk presented at BFI Southbank   Newly recorded audio commentary by filmmaker and writer Kat Ellinger   Women’s Work in Wartime (1918, 8 mins): a propaganda short looking at the acceptable roles for women at a time of war   Masculinity in Modes (1931, 1 mins): a cinemagazine item showcasing the more masculine trends in Parisian couture   The Legend of Joan of Arc ballet (1958, 2 mins, extract): an item from the cinemagazine USSR Today showing a Nikolai Peiko’s ballet performed in Moscow   Original theatrical trailer   Stills gallery   **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet with new essays by Lillian Crawford and Richard Combs and full film credits