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Film-Philosophy 19 (2015)

Trying Truths: Dreyer, Bresson and the Meaning Effect

Brandon White1
After hundreds of pages spent contemplating the Holy Trinity, Thomas
Aquinass Summa Theologiae moves on to consider only slightly more
material matters. Having already tackled the largest questions facing his
faith, the thing that temporarily seems to slow Aquinas down is, of all
things, the angels. Can an angel be in several places at once? Can several
angels be in the same place? (Aquinas 1274, 311, 313). These questions are
but a step away from that old riddle, likely inspired by Aquinass own
speculations but seemingly just as ancient, as to how many angels can dance
on the head of a pin. But what is at stake here for Aquinas is the difference
between corporeal and spiritual essence. God is divine, his Son is flesh, but
what, exactly, are angels? Aquinass answer is that while angels have not
bodies naturally, since Scripture from time to time introduces angels so
apparent as to be seen commonly by allit follows that they sometimes
assume bodies (1274, 302, 304). Angels have bodies, then, when it suits
them, but when that might be remains something of a mystery.
I begin with the above illustration as prelude to a discussion of cinematic
representations of the trial and death of Joan of Arc not strictly because of
the issues at stake even the Rouen court never asked Joan whether Saint
Catherine and Saint Margaret could stand side by side but because of
what it signals about the status of reason in questions of faith. Aquinass
expositions are of course not gospel, but they do seem to project the force of
absolute certainty. The organization of the text, subdivided into a web of
cross-referencing articles, is baldly formulaic, baldly logical. Aquinas
underscores a conviction that even the mysteries of existence can
nevertheless be known. The very title of Aquinass work, Summa
Theologiae, ordinarily translated as Compendium of Theology, carries
with it the Latin root implying not just a sum but a total account. A
compendium of theology doubles as a total explanation of what that
theology contains. While Aquinass reckoning of the angels preserves
something of the ineffability of their nature, it insists that the terms of the
ineffable can nevertheless be clearly defined.
This logic is equally vital to the trial and canonization of the real Joan of
Arc. Despite the now widespread conviction that the Rouen court that
condemned her to death was fantastically corrupt, the very idea of holding a
trial to begin with suggests that some arrangement of facts would constitute
sufficient evidence to indict or exonerate. Even the eventual promotion to
sainthood requires a sussing-out of fact, verifying that events took place, but
in a way that can finally only be ascribed to the divine (Herbermann 1907,
II.364-369, X.338). We can, however, see something of this logic in a more

University of California, Berkeley:


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immediate form in the two films that will be the focus of this essay, both of
which are concerned with that first stage of Joans martyrdom, her trial.
In some respects, a straightforward comparison of Carl Dreyers The
Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne dArc, 1928) and Robert
Bressons The Trial of Joan of Arc (Le Procs de Jeanne dArc, 1961)
seems somewhat fanciful. The films possess identical subject matter, but
were created thirty-three years apart. To say that Bressons film is a
restyling of Dreyers would perhaps be suggested by the simple
technological advances that replaced the earlier films intertitles with
recorded dialogue. What I intend to suggest is not simply that Bressons
film is a revision of Dreyers, but that it attempts to re-envision the
relationship between faith and knowledge glimpsed in Aquinass
disquisition on the angels. Dreyers aesthetic has long been lauded for its
illusion of psychological depth, for how its unforgettable faces, the
tactility of the objects, and immediacy [of] action lend an impression of
vivid specificity to the characters thoughts and emotions (Schrader 1972,
112-114; Bordwell 1973, 22). This same emphasis on surfaces, however, on
faces and objects, suggests that meaning whether psychological or
spiritual can be visualized and embodied. Lurking beneath this surface
aesthetic, however, are the traces of a different dynamic, which seems to
want to find meaning precisely in the moments that the camera cannot
capture. It is this latter dimension that Bressons film develops.
What would it mean to attempt to film a divine visitation? Joan of Arcs
political sin was that she dared to lead an army against the English; she
was condemned, however, because she claimed that visions of the saints had
instructed her to do so. Joans real-life testimony before the Rouen court
revolves around the status of these visions. What did Saint Michael look
like? How did Joan know that the visions came from God? What little drama
both films produce springs from these exchanges. The representational
status of Joans visions thereby matters nearly as much to contemporary
witnesses to the trial as it did to the judges. For Bresson or Dreyer to place
Saint Michael before our eyes would be to supply incontrovertible evidence
that Joans account is authentic. Neither director goes so far, yet in their
unique approaches to the question, each offers a different understanding as
to what sorts of fact a true faith would allow. Faith is affect, Dreyers film
seems to say, to be found written upon the body. Bresson simply takes this
aesthetic one step further, finding fullest proof for faith in everything that
the film will direct the audience towards but resolutely refuse to depict. The
integrity of absence is the meaning of faith in Bressons film, producing
what we will later call a meaning effect. We watch the film, we witness the
trial and death of its heroine, and yet the film locates the entirety of meaning
in the spaces just between or behind each frame. The truest faith, in
Bressons vision, is the one whose truth we can sense even without total


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Carl Dreyers The Passion of Joan of Arc is sufficiently emotive that it
might be possible to watch the film for some time without recognizing that
it is, in fact, a silent movie. The first image we see is of a hand flipping the
pages of a book. The words themselves are illegible, but an intertitle
imposes to tell us that what we see is the record that will animate the rest of
the film: the transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc. The fact that no
soundtrack accompanies this spectacle in fact seems fitting, for the Chambre
des Deputes could well be as silent as a church or tomb. What information
the scene has to display can be witnessed just as well in silence.
If we cant quite make out the words printed on the transcripts pages,
what, at least, do the intertitles tell us? Only to trust what we see
[T]he questions of the judges and Joans responses were recorded
exactly[R]eading [the transcript] we discover the real Joan not in
armor, but simple and human, a young woman who died for her
countryand we are witnesses to an amazing drama: a young, pious
woman confronted by a group of orthodox theologians and powerful
judges (Dreyer, 0:02:40 0:03:42; my italics)
The emphasis provided by my italics perhaps fails to do full justice to the
force of what the film maintains in its earliest instants. The claims
themselves that the film is based on the authentic record, that this record
provides unique insight into its protagonist are not all that extraordinary.
But what is unusual is the films assertion of itself as a somehow truer
indication of what took place. Reading the transcript, we discover the real
Joan, and this makes us witnesses to an amazing drama. And yet the
drama of the exchange is what the film endeavors to produce, not the
transcript. Although the introduction to the English translation of the trial
record maintains that it is one of the most fascinating narratives in all
history, no tallying of events could resist the impulse towards narration
more than the account in question (Barrett 2009, 4). The Proceedings in
Matter of Faith Against a Dead Woman, Jeanne not only gives away its
ending in its very title, but presents its tale as an unmediated stream of days
and weeks, questions and answers, with no sense of subordination
whatsoever. Although prepared by one of the inquisitors, no effort is made
to acknowledge the significance of any exchange. Some days contain a
single question. Whole days are elided without specifying the cause. The
transcripts construction is wedded to the annals, the historical form roughly
contemporaneous with it, which, as Hayden White has glossed, reveals its
meaning principle as present in the composition of the discourse only by


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virtue of its absence (1980, 32; 1990, 10).2 Dreyer's film, however, insists
not only that this meaning is present in the historical record, but that it is
positive, that it is amazing, extraordinary, that the real Joan it gives us
is both youthful and pious. Insofar as the original transcript has any
judgment to offer, it is rather as condemnatory as the final and fatal
judgment that it records. There is little praise of youth to be found there, and
perhaps even less of piety.
The Passion of Joan of Arc thus undertakes a project not only at odds
with its own source material (which would be, by itself, no great sin) but in
open contradiction to its own claims. No sooner has a real Joan been
promised than the film begins to substitute its own picture of its subjects
chief virtues. Note the persistence of the visual in the intertitles rendition.
Joan is (twice) young, simple but human. Even when a negative
definition is offered, not in armor, we are still given a possible pictorial for
what our Joan could be.
All of this, I should qualify, is not to say that Dreyers film takes flagrant
liberties with the historical record, or that its approach to history is, for want
of a better phrase, revisionary. Lest we think that the film has actively
endeavored to replace its nominal source material with a parable of piety
over orthodoxy, it might be noted that Pierre Champion, the editor of the
definitive French translation of the trial text, was in fact a commissioned
consultant for the film (Bordwell 1973, 14). Champions involvement,
however, but further suggests what I am, in fact, saying about Dreyers film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is not wrong in its apprehension of the various
motives, clandestine or otherwise, that might have underpinned the trial.
Rather, the film only seems convinced that it can make explicit everything
that, in the text itself, had been relegated to mere subtext. What the
recurring emphasis on visuality suggests is an essential integrity to the final,
sanctified image. The field of view that the film attempts to take in is total.
If, as Hayden White intimated, meaning ordinarily enters into the
annals only by virtue of its absence, The Passion endeavors to fill in the
blanks, to make meaning entirely present and palpable (1990, 10). The same
features that Ive glossed as the films newly positive outlook are all in fact
values that Champion himself ascribes to the historical record; in an essay
appended to the end of Barretts English translation, Champion
characterizes the trial as an event of deepest pathos, where innocence and
youth were victims of political passion, which shocked human conscience
(quoted in Barrett 2009, 246). This rhetoric too we will find nowhere
explicitly in the archive, but we can see the same meaning literally
embodied in aspects of Dreyers film. The first intertitle we see after this

The annals of Medieval Europe, in Whites account, contain only successive events with
no sense of cause and effect. This happened, then this happened. The meaning
underpinning two events say a drought one year and widespread famine the next can
only be inferred retrospectively, based on what the two objects share. Ultimately, the entire
annalistic record is subject to a single yet no less invisible meaning principle the
inexorable march of Gods will.


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overture is an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
truth (Dreyer, 0:05:09). Beyond this final citation, there will be no further
need to nitpick, but it should barely surprise that even this isnt quite what
the real Joan was asked to swear. The trial transcript shows that the prisoner
was asked to speak the truth, the simple and absolute truth (Barrett 2009,
35). Theres a relatively large conceptual gap between the whole truth and
the simple truth.3 The simple truth is merely a truth that will not admit
falsity. The whole truth, however, is a promise of total fidelity, of
complete legibility. The film could just as well be swearing an oath of itself.
The whole truth, then. How do we see the whole truth, especially where
so much of the evidence being debated is unverifiable? David Bordwell has
already brought our attention to the extraordinary expressivity of the films
unforgettable faces, which create an impression of vivid specificity
(1973, 22). So pronounced is the effect, Bordwell notes, that people often
remember the film as consisting entirely of close-ups, even though a variety
of other shot distances are used (1973, 24). All of Dreyers actors in the film
were forbidden to wear make-up or wigs. Dreyer demanded that [lead
actress] Rene Falconetti convey the saints agony, fear, and love of God
through her eyes and face, with limited words and gestures (Grace 2009,
122).4 Agony, fear, love. The full range of emotions that the film explores
is, were told, to be found written on the faces. Why not then also truth?
We see the expressivity of Falconettis performance from even her
earliest exchanges. When asked who taught her the Lords prayer (Dreyer,
0:06:38 0:06:48), Falconettis Joan slowly closes her eyes; when they
open again, a single tear streaks down her face as she answers, My mother.
At the mention of her mother, the Joan we see here is at once saddened and
submissive. Still some distance from the divine, still firmly rooted to earth,
the early Joan is indeed at her most human.
It is perhaps by point of contrast then that Joans expression changes so
dramatically just moments later, as soon as the questioning has turned from
her mortal relations to her relationship with the divine. Asked if she claims
to be sent by God, Joans eyes dilate; or, perhaps more accurately, her
entire face opens up. For almost a full minute (0:07:25 0:08:24), Joan
maintains a dead steady stare; a tear and still she doesnt blink. Although
Joan is not the only subject in focus across the entire span, the consistency

Dreyers French is toute la vrit the original Latin is simpliciter (Dreyer 1970, 35;
Tisset and Lanhers 1960, 80).
This concentrated aesthetic has been traced by Paul Schrader to Dreyers early interest in
the Kammerspiel, the nineteenth and early-twentieth century genre of German chamber
plays ordinarily featuring intimate staging, with a minimal cast interacting in a fixed
number of rooms; by enforcing strict thematic and physical limitations, this early
expressionist drama permitted psychological depths to be probed most efficiently (1972,
114). Dreyer, Schrader tells us, was once flattered to be credited with making the first
Kammerspielfilm (1972, 114). No conceit of staging requires that Dreyer treat his set like a
theater. But the restrictions of the Kammerspiel, its concentrated focus on human
expression, is just as available to the focus of the cameras eye.


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with which the camera returns to her gaze suggests that she holds this
expression for the duration of the questioning.
We see similar shots continually throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Here specifically, however, immediately following the very different
downcast eyes at the mention of her mother, Joans gaze becomes positively
otherworldly. It is not only that the subject matter has suddenly changed, but
that her answers seem to come from a different place altogether. Who taught
Joan the Lords prayer is legible enough information; we (or the inquisitor
Cauchon) might even be able to guess an answer based only on the distance
of Joans Orlans home from the nearest parish. Yet when asked about her
contact with God, Joans answers are less readily offered. She looks to the
sky. Her head tilts from side to side. She smiles. While Joan holds her gaze,
we can almost witness the process of comprehension at work. We see, in
other words, that Joan is aware of something that eludes us. And in her
smile we see even that she recognizes the canniness of her eventual answer.
We are able to see in Joans gaze that she herself sees something beyond us.
This account is indeed how Dreyers original screenplay paraphrases the
sequence. Joans eyes are raised to heaven, as if it was heaven that gave
her courage and found the right words for her. Her expression, which is
filled with the glory of a heavenly vision, is almost unearthly as she
answers (Dreyer 1970, 32; my emphasis). While we, viewing the film,
never see the target of Joans glassy gaze, here were told that its towards
heaven that she is looking, and it is from these heavens that Joan receives
responses. Here the stare of a woman condemned to die for her divine
visions is cast as a heavenly vision in its own right. Although what Joan
sees in the heavens is not immediately available to us, we know (because
the film shows it to us) that she finds there the right things to say. The
whole truth is found in that empty stare; or rather, in the fact that were
there to witness it.
This literalization of Joans vision as visionary is not even, however, the
place where the film most explicitly brings Joans private view of the world
before our (very public) gaze. Assuming that Joans trials are a postfiguration of Christ (Grace 2009, 126), how legible are the parallels to the
other characters that populate the film? Surely if any of the principals was
aware of how extensively Joans sufferings paralleled Christs, no religious
authority would want or be willing to burn her. This tension between what is
staged and what is actually recognized by the players involved haunts the
film to a certain extent. Yet every possible moment of recognition is, at
least, offered for our own recognition. When Joan sees the shadow of a
cross cast across the floor of her cell, she is overjoyed (0:20:02). The cause
neednt be entirely divine; weve already seen that the cross is formed by
the bars bolted to her window (0:19:00). Yet when the cross disappears just
as the interrogator Loiseleur steps into the light, the coincidence appears
more than simply coincidental. The iconography of the instant is something
that escapes Loiseleur entirely (0:22:00). Its significance is something that
only Joan sees, but that the viewer shares.


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All meaning in Dreyers world is thus tangible, visible, knowable. The

films truth, again, is the whole truth; the ineffable is every bit as
representable as the films definition of a real Joan. Every possibility for
the authenticity of Joans visions, then, is dragged before our sight, save
one. The Passion opens after Joan has already been captured, after she has
first seen the visions that inspired her to arms. We are never then given an
opportunity to see Saint Michael or Saint Catherine, to see how these figures
appeared to Joan. And yet, early in the film, one line of questioning pertains
to just this question. Saint Michael appeared to you in what form?
(0:09:27). Joan fails to answer, and is barraged by additional questions. Her
eyes, throughout, are as wide and wild as in the stills above. Did he have
wings? Did he wear a crown? One priest, hitting on a particularly apt
point of attack, strides behind the rest of the panel (10:01 10:07), and as
he moves from (screen) left to (screen) right, Joan follows him with her still
unblinking gaze.
The priest asks his question (How did you know if it was a man or a
woman? Was he naked?), and Joan stares, presumably at him, for some
time before responding: Do you think God was unable to clothe him? The
priest turns to go, chastened by Joans answer, but as he exits the frame we
notice something rather curious, or at least curious if weve been paying the
kind of close attention to the structure of glances that the rest of the film has
demanded (0:10:42). When responding to Cauchons questions, Joans gaze
is level with the center of the frame. As the senior inquisitor, Cauchon is
presumably seated in the center of the room, and weve earlier (0:04:18
0:04:20) seen a soldier place a stool for Joan in that very spot (0:04:180:04:20). Yet when the priest that prompts Joans response concerning Saint
Michael exits the frame, we see that he is standing far to the left of
Cauchon. Joans gaze, however, is well right of center. As she answers, in
other words, she is staring at a point just off to the left of Cauchons left
shoulder a place where no priest, at least, is standing. When earlier,
Joans eyes had wandered to the sky before returning to center, we had said
that she was finding answers in the heavens. Here, however, at what exactly
is she looking? To whom does she look for the right answers (Dreyer
1970, 32)?
Is this then The Passions flirtation with the ineffable? Are we meant to
see, on the other side of this glance, Saint Michael? It is worth recalling
again that the film is silent. Absent a soundtrack, the films representational
economy is necessarily an economy of glances. It is our comprehension of
Joans looks when she stares, when she smiles, when she sees crosses on
the floor that allow us to see that she knows something more than the
other characters can rightly perceive. That here then the film would
destabilize its own economy, would show us what appears to be a series of
paired shot-countershots, that are not, ultimately, at all aligned with the
focus of Joans gaze would thus suggest that our ability to read Joans
glances is not entirely as total as we might have intuited. The film might yet
endeavor to give us the whole truth. It is simply a truth that the camera


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points us towards, but will not entirely reveal. The priest exits to Cauchons
right, if we could only budge the camera inches to our right, we would be
able to see something of what Joan sees, even if its only a blank stretch of
wall, free of any scuffs or marks or perpendicular lines to suggest a cross.
Its the old epigram from Gertrude Stein, theres no there there, now with
a twist. Here its the first of the consecutive theres that is entirely
transparent. We know, whatever it shows, what meaning it would be meant
to convey. Its only the second there, the ordinarily more specific one, that
we cant quite place.
What Dreyers film suggests, if only fleetingly, is the possibility of
representing meaning while nevertheless refusing to represent where that
meaning might originate. It is this aesthetic that I shortly want to locate
more comprehensively in Robert Bressons The Trial of Joan of Arc the
sense that we are able to locate something without material location. This
conceit is nearly the precise inversion of Hitchcocks famous MacGuffin:
whereas Hitchcocks trope presents an object that propels the plot
independent of the objects final value, Joans focus on the empty air
denotes only value, the highest value, a value that fails to attach to any
object at all. The parsing of glances here might seem excessive if it werent
for the consistency of the films representational economy, and the fact that
other commentators too seem to have detected something unusual in this
aspect of Dreyers method. David Bordwell mentions that Dreyer
undermines [the] concreteness of his style by presenting shots that are
optically inconsistent, thereby moving away from conventional
representation and toward a pure shot-flow (1973, 27). Shot-flow refers to
the strategy by which a director ensures an affinity between where the
viewers eyes come to rest in one shot and where the action will continue in
the next. However, Joans gaze is directed out of the frame on the right-hand
side of the screen. The principal object of narrative interest the departing
priest vanishes out of the frame to the left. What we have then is the very
opposite of pure shot-flow: a series of transitions that actively retards
narrative comprehension. If we are to follow where Joans glance seems to
locate meaning, we cannot also follow the narratives focus. We would
have, in effect, what D. A. Miller calls a too close view of viewing (2010,
But before moving on to Bresson, what, finally, of Dreyer? And what of
Joans view? If ever a gaze was too close it would likely be hers. But even
in signaling meaning, does it perhaps itself miss something? During that
earlier volley of questions that preceded the priests stroll from left to right
and that found Joan looking well beyond him, her eyes are fixed right where
we ordinarily expect them, dead center. Yet all of the questions come from
off to the sides. Did [St. Michael] have wings?. Did he have a crown?.
Not one of these questions is formally answered. Yet one man raises the
arms of his robe, the other taps his ring of hair. Both men act out the very
thing that Joan might have envisioned. Joan seems to see none of this. We,
however, get both pictures: the place where Joan seems to find meaning,


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just off screen, and a separate literalization of what that meaning might look
like. Dreyers film ultimately does attempt to give us as total as whole a
truth as it can muster. As Aquinas reminds, sometimes angels are embodied,
and other times they are not. Both versions, the ineffable and the
perceptible, appear here side by side. Dreyers total vision cannot show us
Saint Joan without also forcing us to behold Saint Michael.
Robert Bressons Joan never does swear to tell the whole truth. In what
also forms the first exchange of dialogue in Bressons 1961 The Trial of
Joan of Arc, she is asked simply to swear to tell the truth in the first place.
Succinctly, she swears (Bresson, 0:03:45).
At the time this film was a small revolution, but now I only see all the
actors horrible buffooneries, terror-stricken grimaces which make me want
to flee (quoted in Schrader 1972, 123). This is Robert Bressons only
recorded statement on Carl Dreyers Passion, given in 1957, four years prior
to the release of his own interpretation of the trial. What could have made
the film a small revolution in Bressons estimation, however, is difficult to
guess, for the very thing that for most critics makes the film so powerful, the
expressivity of the actors faces, is apparently what strikes a kind of terror in
Bresson himself.
Given this characterization, it is perhaps surprising how superficially
similar the two films appear to be. Bresson opts to limit himself in nearly all
the same respects as Dreyer. Not only does Bressons film begin with the
swearing of the oath, but it recycles the initial explanatory title card, and
with it much of Dreyers original conceit. It is simply in the type of facts on
display that Bressons exposition differs. Joan of Arc died in 1431, were
told, and no portrait of her survives (0:02:56). The film does not offer
itself as a substitution for this absence; rather, it defers to its source, the
transcript of Joans testimony before the judges of Rouen. The distinction
established is not between a Joan in armor and a real Joan, young,
innocent, and in the flesh (Dreyer, 0:02:40 0:03:42). Rather, what the film
suggests is that her words provide a better portrait than an actual portrait
would allow (Bresson, 0:03:04). Bressons assertion disavows the kind of
emphasis on visual depiction from which, in Dreyers film, he had
apparently recoiled.
Bressons fidelity to the source material, we should admit, is in fact no
greater than Dreyers. Yet in these invocations of the historical record, each
films emphasis suggests the particular commitment of its aesthetic. Where
Dreyers pursuit of a real Joan attempts to compress his subject, distilling
all of the Maids passion into as literalized a portrayal as possible, Bresson
attempts to develop his subject, to offer more than a portrait, something
Does this mean that Bressons vision is somehow nearer to the real Joan?
Although Bresson elsewhere mentions that his films aspire towards an
unparaphrasable meaning, in the opening crawl Bresson seems engaged in,


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precisely, paraphrase (quoted in Sontag 1988, 180). Here were told of

Joans death; were told of her capture in battle. Bressons subject seems
chosen specifically for her immediately eminent profile, and here were
given snippets of what that profile entails. But no sooner have these facts
been enumerated than Bresson dismisses them with a single parenthetical:
(We know the interests at stake) (0:03:27). Setting aside, for the moment,
whether we in fact could know all the interests at stake, what does it mean
to pretend that we do? To dismiss these interests is to invite absences to
enter into our account. Bresson neednt depict Joan in tears or in the torture
chamber, or the petty cruelties of her jailers, the parenthetical suggests, if
we can already supply all of that information ourselves. The representational
imperative is sublimated, subordinated to broader codes of cultural and
historical knowledge. Assuming as its basic starting point the same textual
record as Dreyer, Bressons film already seems given over to what Hayden
White had glossed as a more purely annalistic account, one that is willing to
locate truth and meaning by virtue of [their] absence (1990, 10).
Yet if the decision is to withhold a full dramatization of the Maid of
Orlans, why even select this material? Roger Fry, writing nearer the time
of Dreyers production than of Bressons, commented that the historical
pictures of our annual [portrait] shows require
intellectual recognitions without which the pictures would be
meaningless. Without some previous knowledge of Caligula or Mary
Queen of Scots we are likely to miss our way in a great deal of what
passes for art to-day ([1920], 56).
Modern art, Fry hoped, would be able to do away with this prerequisite. A
modernist cinema, Bresson in his turn seems to suggest, can use this
distinction to its advantage. Merely by referencing the known world, and
with it the inherited tradition of all historical material, the modernist film
does away with any need to represent it. The entire category of (historical)
knowledge is simply bracketed. We might know the interests at stake, but
knowing them will do us remarkably little good.
That so much is known about Joan of Arc indeed seems to be the point.
The practical drama of Joans interrogation is almost non-existent. What
stock can we possibly place in whether or not Joan borrowed the bishop of
Senliss horse, next to everything else we know about her? Yet Bressons
film stages these sequences so that the very status of knowledge itself seems
in question. How old was the child you visited in Lagny? one of Joans
inquisitors asks (Bresson, 0:19:47). They say you resurrected it. Joans
response is blunt: I never heard it (0:19:56). That this isnt, in fact, the
response that Joan gives in the transcript is (again) somewhat beside the
point. What should matter, however, is how much more abbreviated
Bressons version proves to be. In the actual transcript, Joan is, in fact,
aware of the infants possible resurrection. The child is long dead (with the
specific and horrid detail, as black as her coat), but is revived at Joans


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prayer (Barrett 2009, 42-43). This is something that one ought to be

canonized for. And yet Bressons Joan disavows all knowledge of the
apparent miracle. Why? The very idea of canonization, it was mentioned
earlier, demands conclusive evidence both that a miracle did occur, and that
its causes are finally above the power of nature (Herbermann 1907, II.364369, X.338). Bressons Joan wont even admit to this first standard of proof.
Bressons Joan is perhaps a better Joan insofar as her refusal to
acknowledge her own works allows more fully for the possibility of wonder.
Despite her conclusive participation in the event, she wont even
acknowledge that shes heard it.
The relationship between Bresson and the known qualities of his source
material was noted by Andr Bazin, in the first attempted rapprochement
between the styles of Bresson and Dreyer (even though Bazin died three
years prior to The Trials release). Bresson, like Dreyer, is only concerned
with the countenance as flesh, which, when not involved in playing a role, is
a mans true imprint, the most visible mark of his soul. It is then that the
countenance takes on the dignity of a sign (Bazin 1967, 133; my emphasis).
Bresson employs the flesh insofar as he is required to film actors acting, but
this is only valuable when the body can represent the soul, the dignity of a
sign. What, however, is the value of a raw sign? To summon up Saussures
Course in General Linguistics, which Bazin is implicitly invoking if not
citing outright, the relationship between signified and signifier discards any
correspondence with the signs possible referent. Tracing referents, for
Saussure, was simply beyond the purview of linguistics; that the word tree
makes me think of a trunk with leaves doesnt necessarily mean that Im
considering an actual tree in the physical world. To Bazin, however,
Bressons consistent choice to base his films on existing texts allows
Bresson to establish a special relationship between signifier and signified.
Bressons films, for the most part, possess a ready-made referent.5 By
swearing absolute fidelity to the original, Bresson conditions his viewer to
seek out the established or known qualities of the material (Bazin 1967,
126). Yet the final dignity of Bressons sign emerges through its
divergence from what its referent would ordinarily denote. It isnt only the
historical Joan that Bressons account develops, but rather all the
expectations surrounding his subject that culture from Shakespeare to
Dreyer has already fostered. Bressons choice of a well-known subject

This is certainly true of the trial of Joan of Arc, or of Georges Bernanoss novel for the
film Bazin most closely discusses, Bressons Journal dun cur de campagne (Diary of a
Country Priest, 1951). Likewise, Bressons Mouchette (1967) is based on another Bernanos
novel, Lancelot du Lac (1974) on Arthurian myth, Quatre nuits dun rveur (Four Nights of
a Dreamer, 1971) on a Dostoyevsky story, and Largent (Money, 1984) (loosely but
explicitly) on a short story by Tolstoy. Perhaps the nearest parallel for our purposes is
Bressons 1954 Un condamn mort sest chapp, ou Le vent souffle o il veut (A Man
Escaped), based on the memoirs of Andr Devigny. Like the formal trial record of
Bressons later subject, the earlier film immediately delimits its audiences expectations by
giving away its ending in its very title as translated from the French, literally, a man
condemned to die escapes.


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ostensibly places the discarded referent before our eyes only to discard it
again. The final value of Bressons sign thus emerges against its nominally
most recognizable material as the quality of all that he is not depicting.
By choosing to tell this story that we already know so well, Bresson
attempts to give us a truer (or better) vision of it. This aspect of Bressons
aesthetic creates what I would call a kind of meaning effect. It was this same
quality, in fact, that we had fleetingly noted in Dreyer. The gaze of the Joan
of the Passion, off and out to the side of the frame, suggested the presence
of a source of meaning that we were just barely unable to see. The
impression of meaning here emerged through the sudden withholding of a
routinely established presence. The Passion coaches us to see meaning
behind Joans glances; what she looks at, yet that which we cannot see, must
be more meaningful still. If Bressons film ultimately seems more
successful than Dreyers if it appears, in my terms, more freighted with
meaning it is because it transforms what was only briefly felt in Dreyer
into its dominant aesthetic practice.
This essay began by noting that to film a divine visitation would be to
offer positive proof of Joans legitimacy. What Bresson produces instead
resembles not an act of proof, but an act of faith, as defined at its most basic
level by Jean-Luc Nancy. The act of faith for Nancy cannot be an
adherence to some contents of belief, if belief in this sense can be
understood as a weak form or an analogy of knowledge (Nancy 2008, 52).
For faith comes neither from a knowledge nor from a wisdom, not even by
analogy (2008, 52). Faith is rather an act of excess, a practice that
exceeds the concept by which it might be policed, thrust[ing] the concept
out of itself and giv[ing] it more to conceive, or more to grasp and to think,
more to touch and to indicate than can be literally conceived (2008, 52).
The concept of Saint Jeanne dArc, the Maid of Orlans, is the very one
that Bressons film establishes and then expels. What remains performs the
faith blind faith, as it were that Joan practices.
Bressons meaning effect is developed not only through the suppression
of a part of a frame, but also through withholding the entire value of visual
recognition altogether of the very material availability of knowledge as
such. We have already seen this dynamic at work: Joan should know
whether she resurrected the child outside Lagny, yet she will neither affirm
nor deny its very possibility. The same ultimately applies to the verifiability
of Joans supposedly divine visions. One answer to what it might mean to
stage a vision of the ineffable had been suggested by Dreyer, who had
attempted to concretize that meaning in every glance and gesture. Where
meaning resides, in Dreyer, is where we see it. But a different take on the
same question is suggested by Bresson. The suggested answer might help to
locate what I mean by a meaning effect: an understanding of how Bressons
film impels us to interrogate an object without ever seeing it.
Unlike Dreyers depiction of the questions put to Joan regarding her
visions, Bressons Joan actually answers each question.


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How do you know if your visions are men or women?

They tell me. I see their faces.
Do they have hair?
Do they wear their hair down?
I dont even know if they have a body.
How do they speak without a body?
I trust God. The voice is soft and speaks the language of France.
We should note the indeterminate quality of all the answers. Possibly
the figures have hair, and while Joan can see their faces, she doesnt even
know if they have a body. There is something almost synesthetic about the
responses. That the voice is soft is not a logical answer as to how her
visitors speak without a body. As Bresson himself has noted, Joans
senses, the ordinary method by which information about the material world
is perceived, seem configured in an unusual way: [s]he sees her voices
(quoted in Murray 1970, 104). Joans visions challenge just what those
faculties can properly account for.
Bressons comment illuminates something unique to the original Joan,
but his attempt to portray the same practice throughout the film is his own
innovation. It is not merely that Joan cannot explain her visions. It is that
her very sensory engagement with the world at large seems so limited.
Critics have often found something cold in Bressons style, for reasons
that Susan Sontag has perhaps attempted to isolate most extensively (1988,
179). Although sympathetic to Bressons supposedly spiritual style,
Sontag seems convinced that The Trial represents a too rarefied distillation
(1988, 179): where we know the drama should be taking place, there is
scarcely any evidence of it. Conflict has been virtually suppressed; it must
be inferred (1988, 187). This we have already established as more or less
true. But what does the film provide us with to make even these limited
inferences? Joans lines are delivered in unwavering monotone. She looks
almost entirely at Cauchon without moving. When strapped to the stake in
the films closing moments, she fails even to cringe away from the flames.
Her eyes, indeed, are shut.
In discussing Dreyers Passion, we had modeled how even the focused
visualization of Joans canniness helped to reveal, precisely, the uncanny.
Yet a particular hermeneutic problem confronts the viewer of a Bresson
film (Hanlon 1986, 15). Both the camera and the characters seem otherwise
uninvested in our labors. What information we do receive is difficult,
finally, to pinpoint (1986, 15). Insofar as Joans sufferings seem to have
meaning, something conveys the information, but we have been stripped of
even the basic capacity to isolate where our intuitions originate.
Garrett Stewart has written of how the open acknowledgment of our own
readerly activity creates a congestion of the narrative codes glossed by
Roland Barthes in S/Z (1996, 15). The normal interpretation of action (the
proairetic) becomes stalled by the action of interpretation (the


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hermeneutic) (1996, 16). The text seems only to reduplicate our own efforts;
by showing us that it knows what we know, it produces only what weve
already produced. A similar process (if not by way of the same mechanism)
seems to be at work in The Trial of Joan of Arc. One of Bressons signatures
is what Sontag calls a doubling of action, a tendency whereby certain
gestures compulsively repeat (1988, 182). In Bressons Pickpocket (1959),
for instance, well see the protagonist write in his journal. A voiceover will
then narrate the words just written. We then witness the precise scenario that
weve now both read and heard. For Sontag, two of these superfluous
gestures tell us [nothing] we dont know or are about to learn already, and
thus both arrest and intensify the depiction (1988, 182-183).
This summary would adequately describe, in effect, the entire cumulative
action of The Trial of Joan of Arc. What could we possibly learn during the
film that could tell us something we dont know already? As the title card
holds, (We know the interests at stake) (Bresson, 0:03:27). The entire plot,
as Bresson is willing to treat it, should be accounted for by that gnomic
parenthetical. Bresson has placed the entirety of his ostensible referent up
front, and yet no further information we might acquire could ever modify it,
for the very processes by which we might acquire new information have
been forestalled. Any hermeneutic activity goes unrewarded. To what end
then does the film devote itself from oath to execution?
All that we encounter is a kind of meaning effect, a series of suggested
significances that we recognize and yet fail to formally identify. We came to
this definition earlier by way, in part, of Roger Fry. It was Frys lament that
much early twentieth-century portraiture required knowledge of increasingly
baroque references. It was an additional curiosity for Fry, thus far
unmentioned, that we so often talk of seeing a point whereas we claim to
feel the harmony of a work of art ([1920], 57; my emphasis). What Fry
wanted was a method of representation that could appeal entirely to
feeling rather than to seeing, which is so constantly used for coldly
practical ends ([1920], 57). To an extent, this is the difference between the
representational strategies of Joans Passion and her Trial. Dreyer gives us
his whole truth; his meaning is made totally manifest. For Bresson,
meanwhile, what meaning the film contains is by no means a product of
what we see.
In his final essay, however, Fry provides an example of what an entirely
felt art might be ([1920] 211). His example is Raphaels Transfiguration.
For Fry the picture is essentially incongruous. A proper intellectual response
would come from the viewer who can recognize the iconography, and who,
by comparing the image to the Biblical tale, might be shocked to find not
the poor peasants that made up Christs actual followers, but a number of
noble, dignified, and academic gentlemen in impossible garments (Fry
[1920], 208). A more emotional response would come from someone like
Goethe, who presumably would have known all of this, but found in the
painting a marvellous unity nonetheless (Fry [1920], 209). Neither
response is more valid than the other. Yet the implication, never explicitly


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voiced by Fry, is that the further and further we move away from the
cultural centrality of Christian doctrine, the less likely we would be to
produce responses like the former. What the work expresses becomes ever
more a product of what it makes us feel rather than what it makes us see and
Bresson tells us (parenthetically) that we know the interests at stake in
the trial of Joan of Arc (Bresson, 0:03:27). Do we? A handful perhaps. But
how much of the significance in the questions that Joan elliptically answers
are accessible to someone not armed with The Catholic Encyclopedia? The
meaning of a resurrection, certainly. But the bishop of Senliss horse? The
impelled formation of what Bazin had called the dignity of the sign
ultimately requires discarding even this aspect of the films nominal
referent. The sign that the film labors to produce is a finally ineffable one. It
is an effect that Bresson had, in the opening moments, sketched as better
than any portrait (0:03:27). The meaning effect produced by The Trial of
Joan of Arc allows the film to maintain a meaningful engagement with its
subject even when the stakes of the original drama have passed into
A final question: where does this leave us then, as witnesses, as critics? If
the meaning of Joans sanctity cannot finally be known, our hermeneutic
activity in viewing The Trial is then forever impelled and forever arrested.
Yet the fact that we find the film nevertheless arresting ought to be enough
for us to continue to interrogate the cause. Fry, for his part, refused to do so.
For Fry, the final word on what moves us in art is that those who
experience it feel it to have a peculiar quality of reality which makes it a
matter of infinite importance in their lives ([1920], 211; my emphasis). To
explain the quality of that it any further would probably find us in the
depths of mysticism, and it is on the edge of that gulf that [Fry] stop[s]
([1920], 211). But as Andr Bazin wrote in defense of his own probings into
Bressons mechanics, the film could not stir us unless we had, if not exactly
analyzed, at least tested its intellectual structure and, so to speak, understood
the rules of the game (1967, 125). To say, as I have attempted to do here,
that the meaning we encounter in Bressons film is an effect is to say too
that it has causes. We perhaps cannot go looking for those causes within
Bresson. They resist our attempted logic; they are simply absent; the
entirety of the film, perhaps, is given over to producing the effect.
But having felt it, we might go looking for it elsewhere. The force of
Bressons final sign, I had said, emerged as a negative definition against its
ostensibly most recognizable material. The impression of meaning was felt
in the sudden withholding of an otherwise pronounced presence. It was this
last effect that we likewise located, however briefly, in Dreyer, in that one
long gaze that fails to find a visible object. Nothing will let us move
Dreyers camera enough to account for that last stretch of wall. But that we
even want to do so alerts us to something vital in how the film produces
meaning. Here, just once, it is the indirection of that gaze, the sudden break
with the rules of the game, that stir[s] us, that allows us to recognize


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if not entirely see a kind of meaning (Bazin 1967, 125). What we see
there is nothing but meaning. It is meaning at its fullest; and also at its most
faithful. It is in seeing the absence for what it is, however, that we ourselves
must stop.


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