Tuesday 14 January 2020

Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2019)

Following the second series of Li'l Quinquin, Bruno Dumont immediately set about making another sequel with Jeanne, or Joan of Arc, which continues his retelling of the Maid of Orléans' story which began with 2017's demented musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (which, incidentally, was the very first film to be reviewed in this incarnation of Holland Focus).  As with its predecessor, Jeanne is an adaptation of Charles Péguy's 1897 play Jeanne d'Arc, but this time around Dumont mixes it up a bit and opts for much gentler musical accompaniment in the form of the variété française of 70s pop star Christophe (who cameos here), whose distinctive falsetto replaces the much harsher sounds of Jeannette composer Igorrr.  There's another key personnel change in the form of cinematographer David Chambille, who comes in for Dumont's longtime DP Guillaume Deffontaines.  Chambille, who lensed last year's smash hit Invisibles, steps into Deffontaines' shoes without missing a beat, and his work here on the interiors (of which there were none in Jeannette) proves to be particularly impressive.

But perhaps the biggest surprise in Jeanne - which earned a Special Mention from the jury at Cannes - comes in the form of the casting of its leading actress.  While you may have been expecting to see Jeanne Voisin continue in the role she played in the second half of the earlier film, it's Lise Leplat Prudhomme - the younger Joan in the previous instalment - who returns from Jeannette to play a much older version of the character in Jeanne.  Apparently Voisin was lined up to play the part but eventually bowed out, leaving Dumont to turn to his other Joan from Jeannette.  As a result, watching the two works as a double bill (or simply one very long film) will no doubt be rather jarring in terms of continuity - Joan will apparently get older then younger, perhaps leading viewers to think that Jeanne Voisin's scenes are some sort of flash-forward.  But any such issues shouldn't detract from the work of Prudhomme, who gives another terrific performance here, despite playing a character who, by the end of the film, is nearly twice the actress' age.  Jeanne is a long, hefty and frequently taxing film, and this talented ten-year-old carries it quite brilliantly.

Jeanne begins with things going very well for the title character as the Hundred Years' War between France and England rages on; with her famous victory at the Battle of Orléans in the bag, Joan is delighted to see the Dauphin crowned king of France.  However, after Charles VII (Fabrice Luchini) is installed as monarch (thanks in no small part to Joan's help), he takes a position very different to that of Joan regarding how events should proceed: Charles favours diplomacy, while La Pucelle wishes to continue fighting.  As Joan's military luck eventually runs out, she's captured then delivered to the English, for whom she's proved to be quite the fly in the ointment.  The rest - indeed, the bulk - of the film is dedicated to the exhaustive, and exhausting, ecclesiastical interrogation which this young woman is subjected to in Rouen (actually Amiens) Cathedral.  Needless to say, King Charles is nowhere to be seen as Joan is tried and sentenced.  Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll be painfully aware of the horrible, fiery fate which awaits the protagonist, and in Jeanne - as in every other screen version of this story - her inevitable untimely death hangs over the entire duration as events stick to their terrible course.

Movies about Joan of Arc are nearly as old as cinema itself and, of the many films of Joan's story, the one Dumont's take has most in common with is Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid - although the parallels are only fully obvious now Dumont has made this second film.  Rivette's version likewise cast an actress whose age (27) was some way off that of the real Joan, and was also released as two separate films (carrying the sub-titles The Battles and The Prisons), each of which documented a different stage of Joan's short life.  Equally perversely, both projects disregard significant events: Jeanne neglects to show the capture of Joan by the Burgundians, while Joan the Maid - which totals a running time of well over five hours in its unexpurgated version - omits her entire trial, slapping up a solitary title card to account for months of what Jeanne depicts.  And Dumont, just like Rivette before him and no doubt for similar (i.e. budgetary) reasons, populates his Joan of Arc films with just a few characters at any given time; those coming to any of these films expecting to see hundreds of extras battling it out, Lord of the Rings-style, at Orlèans or Compiègne will be sorely disappointed, and may be better served by Luc Besson's unfairly maligned The Messenger.

While such a constraint could easily have seen all four of the Rivette/Dumont films succumb to an unwelcome staginess (not that Rivette was averse to a bit of theatricality in many of his other films), in Dumont's case this has been resolved via some huge, wide shots of both the windswept Opal Coast and the interior of Amiens Cathedral; both directors' films on Joan - which share a distributor in Les Films du Losange - certainly feel grand (Rivette also used the landscape to let his film open up and breathe).  In Jeanne it's actually the cathedral scenes which are the more effective, as the exteriors feature a number of abandoned WW2 blockhouses - one of which serves as Joan's prison - which are far too recognisably 20th century to really aid suspension of disbelief.  While these buildings make for an atmospheric backdrop to some of the scenes in the quite contemporary Li'l Quinquin, their presence in Jeanne is most distracting - even if Dumont claims to be aiming for a "timeless" accuracy, as opposed to a historical one.  Of course, if you're not familiar with the area where Jeanne was filmed, then this may not present too much of a problem.

In many ways, the main purpose of Jeanne appears to be to replicate the gruelling nature of Joan's trial - that is to say, to make the audience feel as drained, weary and bewildered as our young heroine as she endures endless rounds of arcane questions from the parade of clerics that lines the cathedral's benches.  The clergy's attempts may be futile vis-à-vis wearing down the accused, but they prove to be quite effective when it comes to getting the viewer to crack: the screening I attended saw numerous walkouts - apparently a not uncommon occurrence during Jeanne's theatrical release (and festival showings).  It's certainly an endurance test, and if the dry theological debates don't get you, chances are the long static takes will.  In employing such a daring, unusual film grammar, Dumont has created what is by far his most challenging work; not only is the pacing very slow and deliberate, but at 138 minutes this is the second longest of the director's films (1999's Humanity - which positively flies by in comparison - exceeds it by around ten minutes).  Jeannette may have been niche, but its sequel will appeal to far, far fewer.  Which is not to say that the film isn't worthwhile; here, Bruno Dumont presents a real cinema experience in which those with sufficient patience (say, of a saint?) will be rewarded - although the austere Jeanne has no intention of giving up its mysteries without a fight.  You have been warned.

Darren Arnold

Images: Les Films du Losange

Wednesday 1 January 2020