What language does God speak? An omnipotent God speaks them all, from the tiniest Native American dialect all the way up to English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Yet for nationalists of all stripes, God usually has a soft spot in his heart for their own. The Protestant Reformation, a Northern European rebellion against the Vatican, gave us Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. Every member of Cromwell’s New Model Army had his copy of The Soldier’s Pocket Bible,” the Little Red Book of the English Puritans.
In Robert Bresson’s film “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” Joan, played by the young Florence Delay — who would later go on to publish more than 30 novels — tells us he speaks French. “I trust God,” she says. “The voice is soft, and speaks the language of France.” It’s a defiant statement. The French Quislings and English occupiers who have her on trial are high-ranking Catholic priests and bishops who would assume he speaks Latin. If he speaks French, that means any simple peasant girl can speak directly to God without their mediation. Joan is not only a French nationalist. She’s an early Protestant.
Robert Bresson, who spent time in a German prisoner of war camp, probably shares Joan’s belief that while she doesn’t know if God hates the English or not, she does believe that if they refuse to leave France they need to die. Just replace “the English” with “the Germans.” But Joan’s statement is also about the language of cinema. The Trial of Joan of Arc is a response to The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Dane whose great silent film “occupied” the story of a heroine of French nationalism. Dreyer’s film, usually thought of as one of the greatest films in cinematic history, is almost certainly the greatest silent film. Bresson, who was nothing if not an intellectual, understands that the transition from silent film to sound involves more than adding spoken dialog. It means rewriting the language of cinema altogether, putting the aural on the same level as the visual.
As the American film critic Dennis Grunes argues in his review of Lancelot du Lac, “one always hears a Bresson film as much as sees it.”
Florence Delay’s voice isn’t strikingly beautiful or melodic, and her Joan, as Pauline Kael points out, is more graduate student than romantic poet. But the villain of The Trial of Joan of Arc is clear, the English language. Bresson’s French Quislings are a mixed lot. But the English are manipulating the trial from behind the scenes. Their English is curt, ugly, alienating. They speak hisses and whispers, part men, part snake. After they decide that Joan’s strength comes from her virginity, they send men to rape her. We’re never told explicitly whether or not they succeeded. Later in the movie she complains about how English soldiers tried to molest her, but that’s not what makes them irredeemably evil in our eyes.
It’s how they sound.
We know what the verdict will be from the very beginning. There’s no chance Joan will be acquitted, and she knows it. The film could just as easily be titled A Kangaroo Court for Joan of Arc. It’s only at the end of the film that we realize why she defended herself so long and hard against her interrogators. Just before she’s burned at the stake, the English make it clear they want everything burned, every last hair, every last article of clothing. They don’t want the French turning a lock of hair or a piece of cloth into a relic. The trial minutes, on the the other hand, were written down in vast detail.
Ironically, it was the kangaroo court that give Joan her place in history.