Of all the world’s great folk heroes, Robin Hood and King Arthur, Wong Fei-hung and Sherlock Holmes, the Monkey King and Superman, none has been so well depicted in the cinema as Joan of Arc. Her brief, unbelievable yet true story (believing she’s been sent by God to relieve the siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years War and then install the Dauphin on the throne of France, uniting it against the English, she leaves home at the age of 17 and actually does it; then she’s captured, put on well-documented trial as a heretic, and burned at the stake) is a natural for motion pictures, full of war and violence and androgyny and craziness and faith. The latest director to tackle the subject, following Dreyer and Rivettte, Bresson and Besson, is Bruno Dumont, and his approach is that of the stately rock opera.
We join Jeannette as she watches her sheep on the banks of the Meuse. She sings laments to God for the suffering of her people, wondering how He can let war happen and if the suffering will ever end. This she discusses, in song, with a friend, another girl of about 13, and a nun. The nun is weirdly played by twins, but only addressed as a singular being, one of the many off-hand oddities that are the film’s strongest point. The songs lack much in the way of melody or catchiness, and tend towards a bland kind of 80s European arena rock sound, which isn’t particularly pleasant, but does provide excellent material for one of Jeannette’s singular moves: in the throes of a religious ecstasy she bangs her head like a true Metallica fan. This and other dance moves, stiff and formal, derived as much from 60s dance crazes as medieval poses, are much more successful at conveying the primal weirdness of Jeannette’s belief and the visions that motivate her than the songs, which all kind of sound the same. The lyrics don’t offer much in the way of new answers to the problem of evil, but they do frame Jeanne’s quest as an essentially nationalistic one. On multiple occasions Jeanne rejects the idea that it would be OK if the English won the war, because then at least there would be peace and people would stop dying. This is unacceptable to Jeanne: God has promised France for the French, and anything less is an affront to Him. Nor does Dumont question the veracity of her visions: this Jeanne is absolutely the instrument of God, and the choreography of the dances, unnatural movements caused by non-diegetic and therefore literally otherworldly music, reinforce this idea of a humanity not in control of its actions, merely the tools of a higher, inexplicable, holy, and hard-rockin’ power.
The first two-thirds of the film, comprising Jeannette’s conversations and hopes for a warlord to rescue France, her vision of three saints anointing herself as that warlord, and her later coming to terms with the quest she must undertake, all take place in the same location, the sandy riverbank with sheep milling about in the background. After a break of three years, and a change of actresses, Jeannette, now Jeanne, convinces her uncle to accompany her to the local noble, from whence she will begin to fulfill her destiny. At this point we move to Jeanne’s house, and the shift in location is abrupt and jarring, as if Dumont couldn’t commit to the conceit of having the entire film set in a single location. Similarly his camera position seems only half-thought out, with Jeannette at times looking directly at us while importuning her God (which is therefore us, I guess), while at other times she addresses the sky, while we and the camera sink low to the ground, the sun behind her head giving her the expected halo: we move from God to worshipper for no apparent reason. It looks cool though.
I was extremely disappointed in the only other Bruno Dumont film I’ve seen, Camille Claudel 1915, which seemed to me to be deeply cruel and managed the remarkable feat of making a Juliette Binoche movie boring. This is much better than that, but I wonder what it might have been in the hands of a director with a more musical soul.