'Joan of Arc' ('Jeanne'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Unlikely to make new converts.

French auteur Bruno Dumont's second film about the historical French heroine premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes.

Those viewers who didn't think Bruno Dumont's Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, which premiered at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes two years ago, was either challenging or infuriating enough — or who were otherwise dying to know what happened next in the story — will clearly not be disappointed by its follow-up, simply titled Joan of Arc (Jeanne).

Adapted once again from the early 20th century theatrical works of French writer and poet Charles Peguy, this second (and likely last, though you never know) installment follows the legendary Christian heroine from her different battles against the British in 1429 to her capture, trial and eventual execution only two years later.

It's an incredible true saga that's been already tackled by such auteurs as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini and Jacques Rivette, but clearly none of them had the chutzpah (what better word is there for it?) to do what Dumont has done here.

Part pop rock musical, part drawn-out chatterfest and part deadpan drama performed by the director's typically rustic cast from the north of France, this is the pure case of a filmmaker doing whatever the hell (sorry, Joan) they want and leaving us to contend with the results. Enthusiasts of the prolific Dumont, who also released a new TV miniseries last fall, will surely get something out of this latest effort — as perhaps will Joan of Arc movie adaptation completists. But beyond that niche, many will find watching the 137-minute movie akin to being burnt at the stake. 

On the plus side, the film is carried, somewhat, by its charismatic pint-sized star Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who played Joan as a child in the 2017 movie and now plays her as someone 10 years older (because, why not?) — from the age of 17, where Joan led a botched effort to take Paris back from the British, to her death at the age of 19.

The opening sequences — shot, like all the other exteriors, on the beaches of northern France — depict the before and after of Joan's failed attempts to defy King Charles VII and battle the British on her own, though anyone expecting to see a blazing display of medieval warfare will have those hopes dashed when someone points to a handful of bushes on a hill and asks: "Do you think we'll take Paris?"

Like the blind faith that Joan of Arc is shown to have in God, the viewer has to simply believe in what's happening onscreen, even if Dumont doesn't try to make it look authentic — especially the wartime scenes on the beach and the latter scenes of Joan in prison, which were filmed in abandoned concrete bunkers left over from World War II. Other sequences offer up a little more verisimilitude, including those set in the magnificent Amiens Cathedral, where Joan's lengthy clerical trial happens, as well as a beautifully composed pageantry of horses shot by DP David Chambille (Invisibles) from above.

To make things more crazy, the entire film is peppered with lip-synched musical numbers composed by French rocker Christophe, who was famous in the 1970s for his melodic high-pitched ballads. The kitschy collection of songs is meant to narrate the action — "I've known the suffering of being the lord of the battle" and "She will go to hell" are some examples of the show-stopping lyrics — as we watch Joan get taken prisoner and head toward her impending doom.

For the most part, Joan of Arc can be a tedious experience — more so than the first movie, which at least had the audacity to include death metal and French rap among the musical choices, with several scenes of Joan headbanging in religious ecstasy. Here, the action moves from the stilted war scenes to an endless trial where the clerics are outraged by Joan's heresy and try to force a confession out of her, but are continuously rebuffed by the brave girl's unfailing conviction that she is indeed God's chosen messenger.

There is no doubt that Dumont is trying, albeit in his own very weird way, to render Joan's deep faith and heroic nature palpable onscreen, while also channeling the spiritual writings of Peguy. In the press notes, he explains how he wanted to make "a form of mysticism setting in motion the secret connections in a harmony in which the viewer is a participant and the cinema the framework." Fair enough, and maybe for a select few, Joan of Arc will actually do whatever that means. For others, though, this patience-testing (or is that faith-testing?) work will remain forever at arm's length.

Tech credits are solid, as is usually Dumont's case, with some striking images by Chambille (replacing regular cameraman Guillaume Deffontaines) and textured sound work by Philippe Lecoeur and Romain Ozanne. Performances are a mixed bag, although Prudhomme — who bears an uncanny resemblance, both physically and in terms of her badassness, to Bella Ramsey from Game of Thrones — is definitely someone to watch.  

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: 3B Productions
Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-Francois Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe
Director, screenwriter: Bruno Dumont, based on the plays by Charles Peguy
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: David Chambille
Production designer: Erwan Legal
Costume designer: Alexandra Charles
Editors: Bruno Dumont, Basile Belkhiri
Composer: Christophe
Casting director: Clement Morelle
Sales: Luxbox

In French
138 minutes