Three years ago, the great French filmmaker Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms, L’Humanité) did something even more radical than usual: he adapted and directed a portion of a cycle of plays about Joan of Arc by Charles Peguy called Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, starring a startlingly young Lise Leplat Prudhomme. The film not only dealt with her early years as a child warrior and fervent disciple of God, but also incorporated hard-rock musical elements, only heightening its eccentric qualities. Comparatively speaking, his follow-up, simply titled Joan of Arc (the cycle of plays was called Jeanne d’Arc) is lower key, though it still finds ways to be odd and unusual in the way it tells this exceedingly familiar story of the French saint.
With Prudhomme returning to the mid-1400s, as Joan (the actress is currently 10 years old, although she’s meant to be playing Joan in her teenage years), this portion of her story picks up in the wake of her series of staggering military victories, all said to be instigated by the voice of God that she says she hears. This time around, the music choices come courtesy of French songwriter Christophe, who lends a synth-heavy, choral-like pitch to his slower-paced music, which the characters don’t usually sing themselves (at least Joan doesn’t); instead, the songs serve as something of an inner voice, mostly to Joan, who moves quickly from being a national hero and friend to the king to being arrested, tried for heresy, and famously executed by being burned at the stake.
But Dumont finds way to tell one of the most famous stories in French history in a way I haven’t seen before, beyond the use of music. Some key moments in Joan’s final days happen off screen, and we only find out about them through conversations of supporting characters who were either there or heard about an incident from someone who was. In one such sequence, the guards watching over her prison cell have a conversation with someone present during the last phase of Joan’s trial. In other cases, various clergy members who stand in judgment of Joan talk amongst themselves before she arrives in the looming chambers of the Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, each one of them more grotesque in both appearance and spirit than the next. We do see moments from the trials, but things frequently get hung up on procedure about her belief and place in the church and not about her fundamental mindset about her place in the world or God’s plan. Many of the actors here feel like first-timers, but that actually adds to the authenticity of this fairly lo-fi production, which really only has a handful of performers and locations.
Often feeling like it’s taking from its theatrical origins, the movie is dialogue heavy, with most of Joan’s final battles again taking place somewhere else. The pacing is slower, but the rich and detailed screenplay kept me engaged in the rituals and procedures that went into ensuring the church had nothing to fear from Joan by the end of this process, one way or another. By casting someone even younger than the very young Joan, it underscores that no matter how brave the soon-to-be martyr was during these last moments, she was also a scared young woman who had far more life ahead of her than behind. She did not assume God would protect her from death, but she was secure in the belief that if she had to die, God would make sure it meant something. Her faith was honorable, even in her moments of uncertainty (there weren’t many), and Joan of Arc is a noble and unique take on the end of her story.
The film is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program.
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