Originality is what’s missing from recent hit movies Black Panther, Ready Player One, and A Quiet Place, which makes Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc instantly stimulating: The story of France’s patron saint who was martyred during the Hundred Years’ War is told through the joyful noise of a heavy-metal musical.
Dumont, who always challenges audience expectations, first challenges himself in films that test narrative conventions by mixing drama and comedy, tragic realism and the ineffable — usually with particular interest in examining religious faith (as in his 1997 debut, The Life of Jesus, about modern-day French juvenile delinquents). Going beyond commercial Hollywood and most secular European art films, Dumont exposes the emptiness of junk such as Black Panther, Ready Player One, and A Quiet Place. Those hits distract audiences from thinking, and their popularity suggests that moviegoers have become accustomed to not thinking (the key problem with A Quiet Place, which I address below). Dumont’s headbanger Joan is an immediately thought-provoking showpiece.
The future Maid of Orléans dances about barefoot to synthesizer beats and guitar riffs — a mix of modern and primitive that also comment on childhood purity and innocent imaginings that then touch upon divine inspiration.
First presented as a tween (played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme), then as an adolescent verging on womanhood (played by Jeanne Voisin), Joan sings to hard-rock strains played by an unseen band (French musician Gautier Serre who goes by the name Igorrr). That novelty is striking enough, in the vein of ’70s post-hippie musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, but Dumont is primarily a cinema provocateur. He starts with musical artifice then immediately makes you see the vernal countryside of 1425 France, where the young shepherdess contemplates the war and her place in God’s scheme, as the site of a performance. Several religious genres intersect: the juvenile pageant, the passion play, the religious bio-pic, and the mystical art movie. The panoply is Dumont’s method of calling upon the spectator’s sophistication, which places Jeannette far ahead of this year’s banal crowd-pleasers.
Not an artificially polished movie-musical, Jeannette mixes professionalism and amateurism. The future Maid of Orléans dances about barefoot to synthesizer beats and guitar riffs — a mix of modern and primitive that also comment on childhood purity and innocent imaginings that then touch upon divine inspiration. The first of Joan’s miraculous visions occurs when she encounters Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael suspended near a tree and they sing to her in simple three-part harmony.
These acts of devotion and revelation have a rough charm, but not even Jeannette’s cartwheels, or her uncle’s crude breakdancing, are exactly cute. Although they sing and dance in states of ecstasy (Voisin’s headbanging tresses unfurl like Metallica’s in their music video One), they are resolute and serious about their hard lives during a time of war when their sense of obligation and personal belief are fraught. (Most songs mention suffering, perdition, and the will to “kill war.”) It is this anguished, difficult consciousness that gives the movie its surprising Millennial pertinence. Dumont reinvents the Joan of Arc story as an allegory for our contemporary circumstances and an argument against the spiritual trap of agnostic doubt. When the prescient child sings that “Hell is spilling onto earth,” it is the most effective expression of our current moral and political chaos to be found in any form of popular culture so far this year.
Last week, I didn’t think A Quiet Place worth bothering readers about, but now there’s an Internet meme positing that the unexceptional horror movie might just be significant. The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch recently wrote:
A Quiet Place is about what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, what it means to continue to exist in a world that has made being human virtually impossible. A film about the importance of passing on what you know and what you are to the next generation.
That’s Jeannette’s subject, too.
The past two years have proved that most journalists and politicians are not concerned about the next generation, only about the voting pool for the next election. Contemporary journalists routinely disgrace their formerly valiant profession to the point that you can’t help but worry that these awful people procreate and then dread the vindictiveness — the selfish commitment to social privilege — that they teach to their kids. So when Bunch caught on to A Quiet Place’s nuclear-family theme, he made a considerable point, even though it might not be what director/writer/star John Krasinski wants us to notice. It’s certainly not what unthinking moviegoers approve, given that popular culture is at a state when audiences respond to crass, hokey stimulus, not ideas.
This is especially sad in the case of A Quiet Place, which merely updates the crude manipulation of The Blair Witch Project and never asks audiences to consider the narrative’s themes of procreation and self-defense. The film’s last shot is of a mother proudly using a rifle to dispose of a threatening enemy. But would Krasinski dare defend the NRA against the childish anti-gun sentiment of teenage media hero David Hogg?
I like knowing that Hogg’s camera-hogging has no real bearing on what sensible people think about their own survival. But does Hogg’s being a media puppet mean that Krasinski is a conservative rebel just because his directorial debut enjoyed a bigger opening-weekend box office than Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, a tribute to American military honor that most reviewers lambasted?
Krasinski’s politics bother me less as a critic than A Quiet Place’s ineptitude. His lame horror-movie premise, in which post-apocalyptic society is besieged by unexplained monsters who attack at any loud sound, remains an insufficient, and insipid, allegory for the societal controversies of abortion and gun control. (Larry Cohen handled these ideas better in It’s Alive.)
There’s no point in reaching beyond cliché to describe what is merely a thrill ride like the Paranormal Activity franchise pilfering from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The film’s real offense comes from traducing silent-movie narrative. The lulling music score, the wide-eyed, over-exaggerated facial expressions, banal imagery, and family sentimentality do not convincingly evoke traditional-American-family virtues. Pretending that a nuclear family fights for survival against attacks from the secular progressive world doesn’t really explicate the film’s crude, simplistic selling point. Its expendable patriarch figure explains, “It’s no one’s fault.” That’s a typical liberal disavowal and gets us nowhere. Down the row, one member of this silent movie’s audience (pardon the expression) was snoring.
Singing to private melodies in their heads, these characters also discover beautiful realizations.
For thinking viewers, there’s more fear, awe, and emotional power to Dumont’s ascetic aesthetic in Jeannette. Dumont depicts Jeannette’s self-obsessiveness in line with his previous films about isolated social figures whose idiosyncrasies can be mistaken for madness or holiness. “Child, have you gone mad?” Jeannette’s uncle asks — the saint’s eternal dilemma on earth. Singing to private melodies in their heads, these characters also discover beautiful realizations (“I have found the strange love of absence / for I now know the love of fidelity”). Dumont’s plain style and natural outdoor setting features bleating sheep after the musical numbers that spookily bring the fantasy/obsession/vision back down to earth, back to an transfigured reality. Dumont’s joyful noise is truly rousing, unlike A Quiet Place
Something goes awry in Film Forum’s presentation of the documentary Hitler’s Hollywood. Director Rüdiger Suchsland aim to uncover the hidden propaganda of Weimar Germany’s entertainment films is explained in terms that mirror the standard documentary histories of Hollywood movies. Did Spike Lee take over Suchsland’s unconscious and make this Bamboozled II?
Suchsland uses as many showy, silly, grandiose clips (b&w and color) as That’s Entertainment, but instead of hauling in old fossil actors to introduce the long-censored scenes, voiceovers quote pseudo-profundities by Siegfried Kracauer, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag: “Some films disclose more than the makers intended.” “Film was the regime’s primary means of communicating with the masses.”
That old PBS chestnut “Cinema became a dream factory” undermines Suchsland’s purpose by bouncing back as the usual explanation of Hollywood movies, which most people are loath to consider propaganda.
Media industries all operate with the idea that the public can be manipulated and pacified, though talk-show hosts and journalists simply praise their brilliance but never pin them down to say what they really think.
Propaganda is an art form. Propaganda has just one objective. And that objective is to conquer the masses. Alluring people into an idea so in the end they are captivated by it and can no longer free themselves from it.
That’s Goebbels, but it could also be any one of today’s most powerful media executives.