The audacious French filmmaker Bruno Dumont presents Joan of Arc (Jeanne) as more than a sequel to his 2017 Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. Having exhausted the ideas of the first film, Dumont goes back at the subject to find new relevance. He presents the saint’s final agony — her personal and public trial — so that her inquisition reflects today’s moral chaos.
Dumont changes Joan’s martyrdom at age 19 to the ruthless hostility faced by a girl half that age (ten-year-old actress Lise Leplat Prudhomme portraying the Maid of Lorraine). She suggests a pretty version of global-warming icon Greta Thunberg, but this daring young movie heroine won’t make the partisan Time magazine’s cover because Dumont isn’t interested in political conformity. Prudhomme’s innocence and her steady stare seem to go right through her examiners straight to us, challenging our sense of what it means to be young, inspired, dedicated, holy, mortal.
For Dumont, revisionist history — and revisionist filmmaking — is not a matter of do-over. It’s about starting over and for reasons that we must heed.
In Joan of Arc (Jeanne), Dumont’s reexamination explores how religious belief intersects with prevailing skepticism and political opportunity. The Hundred Years’ War between France and England is distilled to a clash of patriotism and faith, between nations and morality. The young girl who leads Charles VII’s army, committed to rousting the English out of France by any means necessary, must face the nefarious plans of her compatriot Gilles de Rais (Julien Manier), a warrior whose Mansonian malevolence stands in the way of her righteous inspiration — similar to today’s merciless obstructers, destructors, and devious conspirators. Seen this way, the film is almost a parable.
Joan’s populist appeal is used against her, and she expresses anguish in the first of the film’s four songs: “I’ve known the suffering of being the lord of the battle.” Dumont continues the deconstructed movie-musical format he used in Jeannette, this time replacing heavy metal with synth-pop hymns. Haunting military scenes overlap the image of a child in armor and her emotionless features. The synth chords lend a sound of sanctity that is new for Dumont.
The graphic dissolves in that sequence help us to contemplate the individual soul of the legend — and of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, with Renée Falconetti’s legendary silent performance). Dreyer’s landmark has little impact on today’s film culture, and Dumont responds to that shockingly sad fact. His experiments here move through the artistic techniques and philosophical queries of his predecessors Dreyer, Rossellini, Bresson, Bergman (as well as the filmed-from-above choreographed dance formations of Busby Berkeley). Dumont also evokes classical theater oratory but transposes minimalist stagecraft to cinematic realism: His characters declaim on hilly exteriors, in windblown nature and literally beneath the heavens.
When Joan’s trial sessions begin, Dumont shifts to the magnificent spaces inside Amiens Cathedral, built in the 13th century and still remarkable with its towering, arching vaults. This awesome, humbling setting, with cold, pure light pouring down, strikingly contrasts with our moment of statue-toppling anti-history. Postmodern Dumont doesn’t take us to the past; he lets the past overtake us.
It’s in the Amiens Cathedral that Dumont fully displays his fascination with human oddity and mystery. He shares Mike Leigh’s interest in facial tics, behavioral quirks, and physical eccentricities — as we see with Eric Rohmer’s favorite actor Fabrice Luchini playing the toothy Dauphin, Charles VII, King of France, to Fabien Fenet, a voluble nonprofessional actor as inquisitor L’Oiseleur in a black velvet robe. The halting speech of wide-eyed, lantern-jawed Fenet is startling. He shames the grandiloquent acting tradition (rethink the eccentricities of Gielgud and Scofield and Artaud) as he introduces the entrance of the judges, men of piety and egotism.
All Dumont’s devices evoke the afterimage of Dreyer’s masterpiece — and Christian orthodoxy — so that we must face modern nonbelief. That scowling materialist teen De Rais looks frighteningly contemporary. “He doesn’t have the look of a man,” the villagers say. His battle scars reveal his soul in contrast to Prudhomme’s tiny Joan, who sometimes speaks as if reading a teleprompter, the words (her “voices”) pouring out as in a trance. It has the effect of an intense, intellectualized version of the Henry Thomas close-up that climaxed E.T. the Extraterrestrial.
In interviews, Dumont makes agnostic noises, but he is committed to studying the ineffable, pondering faith in circumstances that test faith, through characters who defy divine benevolence. “Men are what they are,” Joan testifies, “but we must think of what we must be.”
In Joan of Arc (Jeanne), Dumont attempts to start over after Dreyer. His film poses a philosopher’s question that speaks to the morality of this moment: Can we start over?