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This movie about Joan of Arc is a stately, deadpan classical-absurdist pageant, adapted from Charles Péguy’s writings about her. With it, Bruno Dumont takes his own creative development as a film-maker further down an intriguing but increasingly perplexing avenue. Or maybe it is a cul-de-sac.
Dumont started with the shocking, visionary realism of movies such as The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanity (1999) and Outside Satan (2011). Then he moved boldly and very successfully into broad comedy with his TV miniseries Li’l Quinquin (2014) and the period diversion Slack Bay (2016), amplifying the bat-squeak of humour that was probably there all along. In 2017, he made Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a film with rock music about the eight-year-old Joan. And now there is this, effectively a follow-up, with the self-possessed Lise Leplat Prudhomme reprising her lead role.
The film uses an austere and stylised scene-setting, with characters appearing almost surreally on remote dunes or fields or in the echoing vastness of Rouen cathedral, where Joan’s trial is recreated and where she is shown petitioning Charles VII (a cameo by Fabrice Luchini) for permission to resume out-and-out war against the perfidious English and their collaborators.
The action starts in 1429, with the young Joan (evidently about 11 or 12 years old) enduring a sense of anticlimax and betrayal after her glorious victories. She wants to march on Paris; the king is content to conclude a peace with the Burgundians. Arguments are conducted with a cool sense of purpose; battles on horseback are transformed into a dreamlike dressage. The action leapfrogs Joan’s capture to show her in prison and then on trial in a church court, where she is defiant to the last.
It makes no sense to complain of longueurs in this film: either it is a single 137-minute longueur or the description doesn’t apply. The pace is measured, restrained and often torpid. Prudhomme has an undoubted charisma; a more conventional dramatisation of Joan’s warrior career with an actor this young might be challenging and exciting, but it is not the purpose of this film to excite. It is presented dead straight, yet there is also Dumont’s practice of using non-professionals with speech impediments, and with occasional quirks of pop music to create enigmatic alienation. The appearance and desultory conversation of the two guards outside Joan’s prison cell is almost Pythonesque. The periodic intrusion of these tics evidently hints to us that none of it is to be taken too seriously, or at least not at face value.
I found this film ultimately exasperating: not quite funny enough to be funny, or serious enough to be serious, or passionate enough to be about the passion of Joan of Arc. Dumont has produced such brilliant work in the past, and Joan of Arc could well have value as a way station to something else – a work in progress, a career evolution towards a new, tonally complex film-making language. But this film is opaque and unrewarding.
•Joan of Arc screened at the Cannes film festival.
Source: The Guardian
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