The compression stuns: Joan the Maid (Florence Delay) swears on the Bible before her judges and protests her imprisonment, is taken to her cell and chained to the bed where she permits herself a brief sob, all under two minutes. Robert Bresson employs the original transcript in a strict reading that finds and isolates the image -- principally, the charred stake after the pyre has been extinguished, the ultimate tragic stasis. We know the heroine will be burned the way we know the convict will escape in A Man Escaped, the transformative trek towards it is what Bresson is after, shot with flattening lens and cut for rhythmic gravity. Joan sits before Bishop Cauchon (Jean-Claude Fourneau) to be quizzed about the divine voices in her head, her masculine battlefield attire and her virginity; the words are familiar and the speech is neutral, the trial is clipped, bureaucratic and overpoweringly earthbound to the soul yearning for God's salvation. The stone walls are bare and the wooden door creaks heavily, the English voice crying "Burn the witch!" embodies a crowd, the framing is enhanced solely by the jagged peephole Cauchon and Warwick (E.R. Pratt) carve into Joan's cell, which adds a further layer of voyeurism to their (and our) contemplation of her pious intransigence. Critical reception was appropriately obtuse -- Pauline Kael couldn't see the forest for the trees ("What's the dog for?"), Stanley Kauffmann took a wider view and came up wanting ("Why -- after Dreyer?"). The truth is that, as is the filmmaker's wont, his picture wasn't so much ahead of critical cycles as outside of them, suspended like the protagonist between sanctity and pride, undaunted yet utterly naked, "The sight of flames will not change my words." The single limitation is that Bresson pushes monastic severity all the way to the wall -- to surpass the final view of Joan going to the stake with a pooch for a witness would mean having to reinvent his own brand of cinema, which he went on to do, supremely, in Au Hasard Balthazar. With Roger Honorat, Marc Jacquier, Jean Gilibert, and Michel Herubel. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce