Big-screen interpretations of Joan of Arc are often ridiculous (Jean Seberg in Saint Joan, Milla Jovovich in The Messenger), can be epically confident (Sandrine Bonnaire in Joan the Maid), and have once reached the sublime (Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc). Previous critical assessments of Florence Delay (listed as Florence Carrez in the credits), Robert Bresson’s Jeanne d’Arc, have not been kind. In an otherwise glowing, influential essay on Bresson’s work collected in 1966’s Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag dismisses both the film and the actress: “With Florence Carrez [. . .] Bresson has experimented with the limit of the unexpressive. There is no acting at all; she simply reads the lines. It could have worked. But it doesn’t—because she is the least luminous of all the presences Bresson has ‘used’ in his later films.”
Four decades later, Tony Pipolo, author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, whose publication serves as the occasion for Anthology’s two-day revival, reopens the trial of The Trial of Joan of Arc. Bresson’s 1962 film—the most underrated of the director’s 13 features (and, at 65 minutes, his shortest)—Pipolo points out, “launched a decade devoted to female protagonists” (and the careers of Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda). By looking anew at The Trial of Joan of Arc, made in between the works widely considered Bresson’s supreme masterpieces (1959’s Pickpocket and 1966’s Au Hasard Balthazar), Delay, a 20-year-old university student at the time, emerges as one of the most perfect of the director’s “models”: a steadfast teenage saint whose stoic countenance is punctured once, at the film’s beginning, by a burst of tears.
Bresson rejected acting; he wanted his nonprofessional performers simply to be, part of his notion of film as a pure art form. The script for Joan of Arc adheres quite closely to the actual record of the trial and of the rehabilitation process 25 years later: Joan is interrogated and taken back to her cell repeatedly, the back-and-forth of the inquisition and the clang of Joan’s shackles providing the film’s rhythm. Delay, her limpid eyes frequently downcast, isn’t “unexpressive” but unsentimental; though austere, she is unwavering, resolute. In an interview with Pipolo, Delay, who would go on to write novels, narrate Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), and be elected to the Académie Française in 2000, explains that she thought of Joan “as an intrepid individual with a mission to perform.” She gave her director what he wanted, but gives audiences more: a new way to access and appreciate history’s most remarkable adolescent visionary.