By Jeremy Carr.
A film more arduous and cumbersome than it is deferential and imaginative.”
Aside from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 paragon, The Passion of Joan of Arc, the story of the revered “Maid of Orléans” has been told dozens of times by some of cinema’s most celebrated filmmakers, from Georges Méliès to Roberto Rossellini to Otto Preminger. Add to that the sheer veneration of this fifteenth-century icon herself, which has been rendered in numerous other forms of artistic expression. In the case of French writer/director Bruno Dumont, not only is he contending with these prior creative and historical standards, but he is also left to reckon with his own initial foray into such sacred territory. His 2017 Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is an inventive and fascinating tale of Joan as a young girl, punctuated by heavy metal intervals of song and modest dance. Unfortunately, in light of this multifaceted comparative context, Dumont’s 2019 sequel, Joan of Arc, falters and ultimately fails to live up to the yardstick set by both he and others.
As Joan of Arc begins, in 1429, Dumont provides background script to set the scene, before introducing Lise Leplat Prudhomme as teenage Jeanne d’Arc, subsequently shown shielded in armor. “Lady Joan the Maid” has by this point attained her national adoration, achieving recent success in battle and accruing widespread support. Nevertheless, the film’s early scenes are marked by the threat of impending danger, amplified by the repeated refrain that “Today will be decisive.” Indeed, Joan does thereafter suffer her first defeat, and she is inundated by infighting and opposition within the realm, by a common skepticism of her abilities and acumen, and by the doubts born from the implied weakness of her sex and age. She remains steadfast, though, driven by the courage of her convictions. Donning the “arms of war,” Prudhomme directly addresses the camera and avows herself to a solitary crusade if necessary. This notion of isolation will become the emphatic crux of Joan of Arc’s succeeding sequences, as the film then cuts to months later, as Joan is subject to relentless trial sessions in Rouen (the most familiar aspect of her life, in cinematic terms at least) and bouts of spurious condemnation, all in an ostensible effort to “save” her soul.
Both Jeannette and Joan of Arc are based on the work of French poet Charles Péguy, but the former feature is a singular work notable for its use of French musician Igorrr’s electronic rock compositions, producing what Dumont called “a music of ecstasy.” Certainly, the most distinct aspect of that 2017 film was its impulsive integration of this seemingly discordant aural accompaniment. In Joan of Arc, though, the martyr Jeanne has acquired a degree of “spiritual maturity,” which Dumont intended to realize in the equivalent melodic complement of French pop singer Christophe. “He decorates,” states the filmmaker, “puts flowers over things that we may otherwise be ill-equipped to understand.” It’s a drastically different course, not just in terms of the music itself, but in the overall tone generated by this shift in supplemental harmony. The musical interludes of Joan of Arc, which was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, are halting and introspective, less beholden to narrative exposition and giddy flamboyance as Jeannette. And although Joan’s horse at one point appears to dance along to Christophe’s score, the musical component of Joan of Arc is slow and serious, drawing out scenes to sometimes insupportable lengths.
In much the same way, while Jeannette’s almost comic incongruity of headbanging song and dance yielded a pleasant if gradually tapering sense of surprise and amusement, and gave the film its novel vibrancy, Joan of Arc’s less radical approach toward music mirrors its more pretentious methodology. The music, like the film generally, is prolonged and progresses at a far more restrained measure, at times adequately evoking majesty and gravity, but at other points simply protracting the advance of the story. Although they are not without interest, primarily as a result of the eccentric behavior and rationale of Joan’s accusers, the trial sequences are particularly stretched by the severe formality of the clerical rhetoric, often approximating borderline lifelessness in the process. The persistent banter feels like a diversion, getting in the way of the more immediate and engaging concerns regarding Joan’s supposed heresy and the sexist, condescending, and vexing pitch of the officials: “We despair of you, child,” declares one exasperated representative. Still, the affected posing and mannered exchanges do occasionally allow for conforming humor, as in the banality of the torture preparations and the lackadaisical guards prone to gossipy chatter. In a film shot by David Chambille, Joan of Arc’s early scenic splendor is also (especially compared to the gorgeous exterior photography of Guillaume Deffontaines on Jeannette) lost to the austere, albeit beautiful, confines of the Amiens Cathedral, where the film settles on its minimalist and rather monotonous disposition.
The saving grace of Joan of Arc, fittingly enough, is young Prudhomme, who gives an extraordinary performance enlightening the advancement of Joan’s determination. Prudhomme, appearing in Jeannette as the 8-year-old Joan before being supplanted by Jeanne Voisin as the older teen, expresses a persuasion beyond her years, facing down those who question “her voices,” those who second guess her evocation of religion during battle (as opposed to rousing speeches of violence), and those who mock her pious defiance. She is an impassioned actress and undoubtedly gives Joan of Arc its essentially sole emotional thrust. Dumont argued the static qualities of his sequel correspond to Joan’s maturity, which is, to be sure, a pronounced aspect of Joan of Arc (again, thanks largely to Prudhomme), but without the ironic formula of Jeannette, nor its pictorial brilliance, the latter film’s 137-minute runtime and the procedural nature of its majority result in a film more arduous and cumbersome than it is deferential and imaginative.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).