The first question that we might ask ourselves about a new French film on the life of Joan of Arc in the year 2017 is: why? Why another one, when there has been — in France alone — films on the national martyr from Méliès, Dreyer, de Gastyne, Bresson, Rivette and Besson?1 Not only is Bruno Dumont’s newest film, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a worthwhile addition to this lineage but it’s also one of the freshest films to have made the rounds in the big mid-year festivals. But if we can talk about the film as ostensibly belonging to a lineage of historical period cinema on Joan of Arc, its singularity comes from a thoroughgoing self-interrogation on what it means to contribute to that lineage today.
Jeannette is exceptionally restless as a work about the major French historical figure, perhaps more than anything due to Dumont’s even more restless confrontation with the historical drama as a form of filmmaking. He continually expresses a certain ambivalence for the easy mythologising of Joan of Arc that has dotted film history, an attitude that comes through in his brazen fracturing and reassembling of her story into a spiky mix of almost Straubian period film and rag-tag, genre-hopping musical. The resulting work is as strange and very often perplexing as that description might make it sound, but through it all emerges an oddly nuanced reflection on the figure of Joan and on re-approaching distant and well-worn myths.
In an interview with Mubi given at Cannes this year, where the film premiered in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar, Dumont expressed his interest in making a film that focused on the comparatively less storied childhood of Joan of Arc as a way of getting to the “flaming little heart” of the historical figure.2 This is an interesting move, not just in setting apart Dumont’s films from other works in French film history, but also because the major events and iconography that we associate with Joan through the broader history of visual arts and theatre are all absent from Jeannette. We don’t see the cross-dressing for which she would be tried for heresy, nor her walking in to battle at Orléans, nor even her burning at the stake at the hands of the English-sympathising jury, perhaps the definitive image of Joan the martyr. Instead we see her more or less formative early moments: her friendship with another young girl from the parish, her confrontation with the nun Madame Gervaise, who hears out her doubts about faith and the presence of the English on French land, and also her relationship with her family that helps get her to the battlefield. While we do see the famous apparition of the saints that instruct her to lead the French army to fight off their long-term invaders, the scene is short and is played out in an almost perfunctory, po-faced and sloppy dance number.
This narrative focus on Joan’s childhood — when she still went by Jeannette — is the product of Dumont’s central structural conceit, which is to take all of the film’s spoken dialogue and libretto from two late 19th/early 20th-century plays by the French catholic and socialist playwright Charles Péguy.3 With no deviation from the original texts, Péguy’s complex and arcane French tumbles from the actors’ mouths, half in dialogue and half shoehorned in to roundabout sung melodies. The divide between dialogue and sung musical number — which generally creates a moment of narrative pause or recapitulation in the musical comedy tradition — is harder to parse here: characters will break in to song mid-dialogue and simply continue their philosophically-charged exchanges in song. For the most part, Dumont’s actors perform admirably with the dense source text, particularly the extraordinary Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who plays the youngest incarnation of Joan in the film’s first two-thirds. Yet interestingly, Dumont also includes takes where the actors appear quite uneasy with the text, almost stumbling or hesitating over dialogue, seeming as though they’re about to repeat a line. It’s a curious choice, but it’s one that gestures to the discord that is inherent in choosing this text, a 19th-century theatrical re-imagining of a 15th-century historical event, as the basis for a modern day film.
On the surface, Jeannette — like Dumont’s last film, Slack Bay — is a period film: its characters appear in serviceable medieval costumes, and an opening text indicates that the action that we are seeing takes place in 1425.4 The film is dotted with intertitles that indicate both time and place of action, yet they are somewhat bizarre in either their specificity (“three days later, in the morning”) or their lack thereof (my personal favourite: “in the same place”, a wink perhaps to the story’s transposition from the north east department of Meuse to the film’s north west Atlantic coastline shooting location).
Dumont continually chips away at these outward markers of time and place that would otherwise provide a surer historical anchor for the film’s action, most notably in the numerous and quite absurd musical numbers, written by musician Igorrr and choreographed by Philippe Decouflé and Clémence Galliard. Running the gamut from various subgenres of metal, electronic pop music and a cappella rap, these musical passages and their accompanying slap-dash hybrid of mosh pit and interpretive dance choreography produce by turns the most baffling and funniest moments of the film. It is very, very funny in a very pure way to watch a medieval peasant dabbing before they solemnly take their niece off to battle the English; it is also, by the same token, difficult to know how to react intellectually while watching that.
But while this description might sound something like those daggy modern Shakespeare adaptations designed to embarrass high school English students with their gaudy anachronisms, leveling that kind of criticism at Jeannette seems counterintuitive to the film’s project, a discordant mesh of constitutive parts that challenge the very notion of anachronisms. Ultimately, I don’t think Dumont wants this jarring clash of text, music, image and sound from across several centuries to produce a new historical gestalt. Perhaps it is its opposite — an irreconcilable chain of cultural and historical signifiers — that he seeks to establish, something that moves the story away from history and into a domain in which it sits more comfortably: myth.
Consider that on May 1st, 2017 — three weeks before the film’s Cannes debut — the ex-Front National candidate and father of then current presidential hope, Jean-Marie Le Pen, stood at the foot of the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris while delivering a speech to supporters of the Far-Right conservative party. While the party has held rallies at her statue for decades and used her image in publications for just as long, this time Le Pen was especially explicit about the importance of Joan of Arc to their political project, insisting that “since its foundation” the Front National has “placed itself under the sign” of the martyr. Looking at the transcript of Le Pen’s speech — where he insists that “the Nation is not others, it’s us” — it’s impossible not to think of a young Joan in Dumont’s film intoning the socialist Péguy’s text that reminds us that the “kingdom belongs to the king” and that it is for the French to defend France, lest the legions of foreigners “devour” the land. If one of the remarkable aspects of the Joan of Arc story is the very fact that it brought a peasant woman into history — someone who, by dint of their gender and social position, would otherwise be doubly at a remove from recorded history — it is perhaps even more remarkable how malleable a figure she would become over time, and how easily abstracted that figure could be.
Perhaps some will side with Arnaud Schwartz’s criticism in La Croix of Dumont’s precarious stew of a film as “une vaste blague” (a big joke) that finally leaves the figure of Joan hidden behind a “smokescreen.”5 But given the stakes of the subject and the complex historical baggage that it brings with it, perhaps a little precarity and humour isn’t amiss here, and a smokescreen might just be the most appropriate form for the figure of Joan to take today. Jeannette sees the director continue his journey into genuinely uncharted waters that has been so exciting to watch in the last five years. Let’s hope he never turns back.