Metal Martyr—“Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc”
In the past few years, Bruno Dumont has gotten goofy. Long gone is the sober and severe Dumont of The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanité (1999), and Twentynine Palms (2003). Filled with bold colors by DP Guillaume Deffontaines, stylized performances from actors and non-actors, and flirtations and mutations of genres (a murder mystery, a musical) — Li’l Quinquin (2014) and Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) are some of Dumont’s best work yet. The latter of which is a Joan of Arc movie unlike anything before.
Throughout film history, directors — Gallic and non-Gallic alike — have been attracted to the martyr. There have been films of her journey to meet the Dauphin, Charles VII; there have been films of her siege of Orléans; and there have been films of her trial and martyrdom. (In anticipation of Jeannette, Manhattan’s Quad Cinema recently programmed a series of the many interpretations of Joan of Arc by the likes of Otto Preminger, Carl Theodor Dryer, Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson, and even Luc Besson.) Jeannette reaches further back, to the time of Joan (here initially called “Jeannette”) as a child shepherdess in the tiny village of Domrémy. It’s an origin story of sorts.
An adaptation of French poet Charles Péguy’s writings, particularly his plays, Jeanne d’Arc (1897) and Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc (1910), Jeannette begins in 1425 with the eight-year-old titular figure (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) fed up with the English invading and pillaging Paris amid the Hundred Years’ War. From there, in the first of a film split into two parts, we see — and hear — Jeannette questioning God’s judgment, reaffirming her belief, and appointing herself as the one true leader to quash the English. Flash forward a few years, the adolescent Jeannette (Jeanne Voisin) (now going by “Jeanne”), after a false start, sets out on a journey with her rapping, dabbing uncle (Nicolas Leclaire) to join the Dauphin in Paris. The film is one long build up to Jeannette becoming Joan of Arc.
What’s fascinating about Jeannette is that it is so minimal, so transparent in the formal choices that Dumont makes. And yet they come together seamlessly. In truth, it recalls Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Moses and Aaron (1975) in its rigor and aesthetic purity. As per usual with Dumont, he shoots in Northern France, selecting locations (sandy scrubland, a stream in a verdant forest, and a modest candle-lit home) that function like prosceniums in which the characters sing and dance. Using direct sound (another Dumontian signature), the director had the actors and actresses (who all composed their own melodies) sing a capella, therefore ensuring that their voices enmeshed with the natural, ambient sounds around them. Their rough-hewn singing frequently contrasts with the driving, thrashing metal score composed by Igorrr. (To my knowledge, never has a movie in film history linked metal and spirituality so harmoniously; headbanging becomes a transcendental exercise.)
Virtually consisting of Péguy’s words, the lyrics are a mélange of poetic theology. And if they aren’t singing, the characters emit a steady stream of talk, namely faith to God and faith to one’s country. There are few if any moments when there’s a pause, a respite, a moment of silence. Whether speaking or singing, vocalizing dominates the film. Furthermore, the choreography is cumbersome and clumsy, yet it feels appropriate. It feels organic. Gestures and movements (pacing in circles, jumping in place, headbanging, hair swinging) repeat, are refined, and are woven into the fabric of the film.
Along with Johnnie To’s Office (2015) and Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (2014), Dumont has made one of the most unusual, singular, and best musicals in recent years. Starting with Li’l Quinquin, continuing with Slack Bay (2016), and now with Jeannette, it’s as if Dumont said, “to hell with it,” and revised his approach, creating sui generis works that wildly combine genres and stylistic choices.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc opens April 13 in Manhattan at the Quad Cinema.