Tuesday 12 September 2017

Jeannette (Bruno Dumont, 2017)

Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc (English: Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc), which screened at this year's Cannes, has had a rather atypical release in that it debuted on French television one week before appearing in cinemas.  Word has it that the TV and cinema versions do differ a little, but the fact that most could watch the film for free has obviously impacted on the domestic theatrical release: it would appear that a lone print is touring Paris' MK2 cinemas during the first week, while screenings in cities including Lille, Dunkerque and Amiens - all firmly within director Bruno Dumont's native Nord-Pas-de-Calais - are also taking place.

Set during the Hundred Years' War, Jeannette's story is adequately described by its full title, as we witness Joan of Arc first as a young girl, then a teenager, before finally heading off to battle - basically, it ends at the point where virtually all other films about the Maid of Orleans begin.  Plot-wise, there isn't much else to say, and the bulk of the film sees Joan among her sheep in the sand dunes (of Wissant, where Dumont's Ma Loute was also shot) as she gradually gets to grips with her calling.  What the title doesn't tell you is that this is a musical, although one that most definitely doesn't carry the broad appeal of La La Land.  The film is based on two works by Charles Péguy, and his turn of the century writing comes to life as lyrics set to the music of electronicore artist Igorrr.  Refreshingly, the vocals were recorded live on set, as opposed to the usual process of lip-syncing to playback.  This makes the two lead performances all the more remarkable, plus it lends the type of authentic immediacy we've long since associated with this director.

The title character is played by two actresses, who, looks-wise, are a good fit for each other.  Lise Leplat Prudhomme takes on the role of the 8-year-old Joan, and the teenaged version is essayed by Jeanne Voisin; the younger Joan is known as the Jeannette of the title, whereas the diminutive suffix is dropped by the time the future saint hits double figures.  Each actress gets an equal share of screen time, with the film pretty much split down the middle as it depicts these two stages of Joan's life.  While it's easy to simply think that Dumont's film is about the young Joan of Arc, it's rather poignant to consider that she was actually never anything other than young, given that she perished at the stake just a few short years after the events shown in this film.  Most biopics focusing on a subject's youth tend to show someone who went on to have a reasonably full life, or at least made it beyond their teens, whereas the childhood depicted here comprised the bulk of Joan's existence. 

Jeannette is yet another good example of Dumont turning up unknowns who give truly captivating performances.  His major find here is highlighted within the film's first few minutes as Prudhomme, in a bravura sequence, sings and dances her way through an extended number among the dunes.  It's an engrossing, amusing and oddly moving opening, and the young actress greatly impresses in the time (nearly an hour) in which she's on screen.  By the time it gets to Voisin's chance to shine, the novelty factor is slightly diminished - the older actress is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a slicker performer, and the raw appeal of her predecessor is notably absent.  But Voisin is very watchable, too - scenes with her and a rapping Ch'ti uncle (Nicolas Leclaire, the most typically Dumontian member of the cast) make for the film's comic highlights - and we should remember it's not her fault she's on second.

Watching the performers here is a reminder that Dumont works better in full-on Bresson mode, i.e. when he casts non-professionals - while Camille Claudel 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Ma Loute both showed that he can operate perfectly well when accommodating big stars, it's the unfiltered, direct essence that Dumont is able to draw from largely untutored performers that gives his work a unique edge.  DP Guillaume Deffontaines, in his fourth collaboration with Dumont, expertly captures the windswept vistas of this part of the Pas-de-Calais, and his camerawork is always inventive (although never intrusive), which is especially important given that most of the film takes place in a single location.

Dumont's films are not for all tastes, so if you're familiar with his previous work chances are you'll know if this film is for you.  Anyone who's studied his career will note how, post-Camille Claudel 1915, he's taken something of a left turn and planted one foot (perhaps just one toe?) in comedy: P'tit Quinquin - series 2 of which is due next year - was a semi-humorous retread of his earlier L'humanité, while Ma Loute took the same basic template and cranked up the broad comic elements.  Jeannette manages to be humorous (can any film featuring headbanging nuns really be anything else?) yet sincere, and at no point does Dumont appear to be mocking his subject or her beliefs. The film's closing shot is really quite affecting when you consider the fate that soon awaits the unknowing Joan.  Go from this to Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle and you'll have quite a double (or should that be triple?) bill. 

Darren Arnold

Images courtesy of Memento Films