Review: Bruno Dumont's JOAN OF ARC, An Experiment in Austerity
On an intellectual level, I understand what Bruno Dumont, the famed contemporary auteur of French cinema, is doing with Joan of Arc.
He has been fully exercising the Bressonian minimalist approaches to all of his cinematic outputs throughout his entire career. And he is doing it with the Joan of Arc franchise (if you will), but that doesn't necessarily make it an enjoyable movie going experience. If you find his exploration and experiment endearing and noble, you are in the right place. If not, you will be bored to death with intentionally bad, or if you will, natural, acting by non-actors, babbling in ancient speech style and strange intonations.
After Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc; a headbanger's ball that was part musical, part comedy of manners, part historical retelling of a young French maid who believed that she was god's messenger to take up arms and lead the French army to rid of the English invasion, Dumont continues to tell the other half of the story, following Charles Péguy's rhythmic prose from the later parts of his three part poem/play, which tells Joan's defeat, trial and burning at the stake, faithfully, word by word. There is a little bit of singing, but no rapping, synchronized dancing or headbanging in this unfortunately.
If you expect exciting battle scenes or bloody battlefields, you are watching the wrong movie. Battle scenes are adroitly replaced with bird’s eye view of an extended equestrian cavalry display. Its pomposity and unintended comic effect is the point. With minimal settings and mostly non-professional actors playing themselves- real life judges playing inquisitors, a Dominican monk playing a monk and so on, Dumont examines Joan (reprising the role is Lise Leplat Prudhomme, a 10-year-old girl who played the younger Joan in the first film).
The real Joan died at the stake at 19. Obviously, Dumont is taking a gigantic artistic license here and even goes against his previous effort in terms of authenticity or chronology. But hey, that’s his prerogatives. Most of the film is comprised of Joan struggling to answer her accusers of heresy. She doesn't hear the voice that was guiding her to the battle anymore. Does she still keep her faith or admit that god might have abandoned her?
The tragic beauty of the story of Joan has always been her inner struggle and her unwavering faith in the face of torture and death. Again, Prudhomme does an admirable job and Dumont makes a point of using a child instead of a grown woman as innocent victim of sexism and hypocrisy of the church. But it doesn't make a compelling experience to watch as clergies dryly argue over Joan's fate in an ancient ways of speech as it was written in Péguy’s book, while the child screams on top of her lungs, "It is none of your concern!" over and over.
Even though I’m a huge fan of Dumont’s previous films, I think I am done with Dumont’s experiment in comedy or historical period pieces. It’s the tone that I find it off in his later work. Looking forward to his new, set in present day film On a Half Clear Morning, starring Léa Seydoux as a war reporter.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com