Trying Truths: Dreyer, Bresson and the Meaning Effect

Brandon White


This essay explores the relationship between fact and faith developed by two cinematic representations of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc: Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1961). Both films are preoccupied with how to present evidence - the proof of Joan's supposedly divine visions - that is ultimately unverifiable, and turn this epistemological problem into their chief aesthetic concern. Through readings of Aquinas, Susan Sontag, and Hayden White, the essay tracks what the stakes of such a problem might be, finding especially in Bresson's method a negative definition of truth or meaning through the sudden but persistent withholding of even its most pronounced historical, cultural, and material content. Whereas Dreyer's film pursues the total legibility of its subject through a constant focus on faces and gazes, showing us literally all that it can, Bresson's film insists on the integrity of that which is unseen, creating what I come to call a kind of meaning effect.


Bresson, Robert; Dreyer, Carl; epistemology and faith

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