'Joan the Maid': Film Review

Courtesy of Cohen Film Collection
Divine.
8/2/2019

The 4K restoration of Jacques Rivette's two-part 1994 feature about the life and death of Joan of Arc is a major event.

In a 1962 interview for the French cultural magazine Télérama, the great New Wave critic-turned-filmmaker Jacques Rivette was asked if he believed in a spiritual domain. "Perhaps," he replied, "but only through the concrete. If that means being materialist, I think that's what I am more and more." Joan the Maid, a movie he directed a little over 30 years later, now beautifully restored and being released in its two-part, nearly six-hour original version at New York City's Quad Cinema, bears out that ethos. It's a spiritual tale in which the spiritual elements (anything transparently metaphysical or non-material) are elided.

For a film about one of history's more iconic martyrs, Joan of Arc, this might seem a strange choice. Movies featuring the Maid of Orléans — who led the French army in battle during the Hundred Years War, was burned at the stake as a heretic and was later canonized as a saint — are legion, and they tend to lean into the holy fervor that she herself claimed to endure.

Every frame of the most famous and influential Joan film, Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), overflows with divine ardor, in no small part due to the many masterful and moving close-ups of star Renée Falconetti. Directors from Roberto Rossellini to Bruno Dumont to, heh, Luc Besson, have likewise explored the story's mystical trappings, be it in the form of a filmed, Ingrid Bergman-starring play (1954's Joan of Arc at the Stake), an impudently head-banging rock opera (2017's Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc) or a bombastic would-be blockbuster (1999's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc), in which future Resident Evil totem Milla Jovovich is cross-examined by her own corporeal conscience, hilariously played by a cloak-bedecked Dustin Hoffman.

It's not that Rivette denies the theological aspects of Joan's character and experiences so much as he keeps them rigorously earthbound. As played by the César-nominated Sandrine Bonnaire — in her mid-20s at the time of shooting — this Joan is alternately a stoic and a scowler. In the rare moments when she grins or laughs it feels near-miraculous, much more so than the prosaic descriptions she provides of her reveries with the archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine. She nonetheless radiates an ineffable energy. Call it star power, of which Bonnaire has plenty, or accept it as something much more mysterious and indescribable. The point is she stands out among the (mostly male) crowd; there's something that draws people to her, and, finally, repels them.

The first film, two hours and 40 minutes in length, is titled "The Battles" and follows the peasant Joan to the court of the uncrowned Dauphin, Charles VII (André Marcon), then to the besieged city of Orléans, where she effectively turns the tide of the war with the English to France's advantage. The second feature, which runs two hours and 56 minutes, is titled "The Prisons" and shows the waning of Joan's influence within the court, her capture by a faction of English-sympathizing Burgundians and then her imprisonment and death. Tellingly, the trial itself is mostly omitted. The simultaneously cheeky and reverential insinuation: Dreyer got there first.

Rivette has his own methods and obsessions, anyway. His name has become synonymous with dauntingly long running times and, with few exceptions, near-nonexistent commercial prospects. For years, his 13-hour serial Out 1 (1971) was a cinephilic Holy Grail. Nowadays, it's widely available on Blu-ray/DVD and ran, for a time, on Netflix. This newfound access (not to say that audiences always watch the formerly rare work to which they suddenly have entrée) has slowly demystified Rivette's oeuvre and allows us to look beyond received notions.

Joan the Maid, like many Rivette films, can be intimidating. Get past the length, and you may still need to acclimate to the movie's vision — courtesy Rivette and his frequent co-scenarists Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent — of a thoroughly mortal Joan, in addition to an aesthetic that is wholly presentational. Cinematographer William Lubtchansky favors unshowy tracking shots and full- and medium-body compositions that keep us at an objective remove. The medievalist score by Catalan composer Jordi Savall doesn't emphasize or augment emotion so much as it wafts in and out of scenes like a gentle common breeze.

In many sequences, the blocking of the actors, coupled with the spare, yet detailed production design by Manu de Chauvigny, lends the proceedings a stage-bound feel (several of the minor characters are even allowed fourth-wall-breaking testimonials). This underlines Rivette's fascination — much like one of his heroes, Jean Renoir — with theater and how it intersects with the cinema. As is his wont, Rivette is interested in how people, in whatever era they may inhabit, perform their lives.

Trying to describe the profound effect of all this is akin to concretely clarifying the potency and the impact of Henry James' prose. It can't be done; you just know when you're in it and when you're with it. Rivette's decision to elide many of the actual battles in "The Battles," for example, certainly has its budgetary motivations. But the restriction proves a virtue, leaving the worst to our imagination (Rivette once wrote of onscreen death that it should only be addressed "in the throes of fear and trembling"), and lending a staggering power to those moments of violence and war-weariness that do eke through. My own favorite: the way a should-be-rousing combat speech by Joan is tempered by the soldiers' palpable exhaustion. In this context, Joan's words aren't holy writ. When her army eventually finds its rush-the-battlements vigor, it's purely, horrifyingly instinctual — why not? as opposed to we must!

The key sequence in "The Prisons" — the coronation of the Dauphin at Reims — has a similarly taxing tenor. In what feels like real time, we watch as Charles VII and a gaggle of bishops go through the ceremonial motions. Kneel. Lay prostrate. Mitres on. Mitres off. It's tediously repetitive, often comical (particularly whenever Rivette cuts to the eerily enthralled mob of spectators) and entirely captivating. Joan's presence is reduced, like so many around her, to that of onlooker. The Dauphin's ascension is one of her God-given tasks and she might as well be in the nosebleeds of a sporting event or a Streisand concert. Her deity is most certainly not in the details.

It's too simplistic to call Joan the Maid atheistic (though Rivette casting himself as the priest who sends Joan on her initial journey has the feel of a sublimely mordant joke). Better to say that if God exists here it is purely in the implied or the in-between spaces — beyond the images, beyond the sounds, beyond the words. By that metric, is Joan's final utterance as the flames consume her ("Jesus!") a revelation or a rejection? She'll never know. And neither will we.

Production companies: France 3 Cinéma, La Sept Cinéma, Pierre Grise Productions
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, André Marcon, Jean-Louis Richard, Nathalie Richard, Edith Scob, Hélène de Fougerolles

Director: Jacques Rivette
Screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette
Producers: Martine Marignac, George Reinhart, Maurice Tinchant
Cinematography: William Lubtchansky
Production design: Manu de Chauvigny
Costume design: Christine Laurent
Editor: Nicole Lubtchansky
Music: Jordi Savall

 

336 minutes