Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2018) by Bruno Dumont
Review by Nathan Smith
The story of Joan of Arc, the child savior who gave her life for faith and country, is one of cinema’s most frequently adapted. Many of the medium’s greatest artists, among them Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini, and Rivette, have all tackled this same narrative, though each rendition is its own. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a study of the human face, Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc an exacting and faithful recreation of the court proceedings that preceded Joan’s execution, Rivette’s Joan the Maid an epic portrait of Joan as a political leader. But none of these versions is as distinct as the latest: Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a musical reimagining of Joan’s early life (from this point forward, I will refer to Joan by her French name).
Though the story of Jean is no doubt familiar to anyone who has seen PBS’ Wishbone or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a number of details about her life are left out from most interpretations. What seems to interest so many of the filmmakers who approach Jean’s story, who by and large focus on her trial and execution more than her life itself, is the suffering. There is suffering in Brumont’s version too, but a different kind of suffering. The anguish faced by Jeannette, who from the moment she appears onscreen carries the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders, is not the physical kind caused by torture; it is the spiritual kind caused by choice.
In the classic version of this story, the adult Joan faces a choice too, but a negative choice: she must either accept a lifetime of extended punishment and abuse or embrace martyrdom in all its fiery glory. Jeannette, on the other hand, faces an active choice. She feels the call of God and wishes to bask in his glory. She has seen a triumvirate of saints who command her to lead her countrymen into battle against their English overlords. But she also feels the call of her home, the landscape she inhabits, the family she loves. The anguish Jeannette reckons with is not the anguish of death; that’s saved for the sequel. It’s the anguish of life, of the choice between the life medieval society has written for her or the life God has offered.
As opposed to the Eastern regions where Jean and her family actually lived, Dumont has filmed his tale in the north of France, the same pastoral, seaside regions that should be all too familiar to viewers of his 2014 pint-sized epic P’tit Quinquin. Most of the film unfolds in this vast, blank environment, which recalls the work of Straub-Huillet in its rigidity. Like Jesus in the desert, Jeannette seems almost stranded in this space, left alone with her flock of sheep and her burning questions. This relentless landscape gives us further insight into Jeannette’s emotional state: she exists in an empty environment far removed from the war, but she can feel the pain the fighting brings to France nonetheless.
What has struck many as the film’s most original quality–and what has earned most of the critical attention given to it–is its anachronistic soundtrack. This musical score has often been described as “heavy metal” in reviews, but it’s not quite that: it fuses the chugging power chords and blast beats common to metal with medieval instrumentation and electronic distortion. The vocals are often imperfect and amateurish, but the lyrics aren’t all sung, either; Jeannette’s uncle Durand, one of her first believers, raps most of his lines (and yes, he dabs too). Oh, and there are headbanging nuns too.
Much has been made of the pivot Dumont made with P’tit Quinquin from arthouse austerity to absurdist comedy, a trajectory that Jeannette continues to follow. The combination of modern music and medieval setting, mixed with Dumont’s now trademark humor, seems like a recipe for irony, but Dumont’s gnostic concoction is strangely moving. Whether his mode is comic or serious, Dumont (who studied philosophy) has grappled with questions of morality for his entire career. Though Jeannette may stand apart stylistically from everything he’s done before, it’s also of a piece, reckoning with concerns that are, if not similar, at least on a nearby wavelength to the moral preoccupations of his early work. Despite the brutality and extremity of films like The Life of Jesus and Twentynine Palms, there has often been a spiritual component to Dumont’s work, as spirituality and morality can hardly ever be untangled. Dumont investigates the nitty-gritty of belief with the distance that only a devote atheist can. But unlike his other films, Jeannette does not muck around in the quagmires of sin; its eyes – and the eye – of the camera are firmly locked on the heavens. In an interview with Seventh Row, Dumont says:
"At the cinema, I can believe in God without any trouble. But when I leave, it’s over. It’s a special spiritual phenomenon, and I think our spiritual life can blossom in the arts and in the cinema. At the cinema, we believe that what we see is real, but at the same time, we don’t. We know that what we’re watching is just cinema, but we still believe in it, on a certain level. The same thing goes with God: you must believe in Him, and not believe in Him at the same time."
In one of the film’s most affecting moments, the cinema’s capacity for temporary conversion is on full display. The camera placed below her, the young Jean looks up to the heavens, crying out to God for an answer to her queries. As she prays, seeking direction from her Lord, she looks downward, her coal black eyes locking with our eyes. Her prayer continues, her gaze redirected outward to us: we have become the God who gives her answers. It is our eyes as an audience that apotheosize the onscreen subject, our look that gives the image its power. By granting film a God-like power, we ourselves become gods, the very heavenly bodies that provide a purpose to the figures we observe. Our gaze is normally a deist gaze: the film is set in motion and we watch from a careful state of remove. But Jeannette’s earnest confrontation challenges that position; though we may not be able to physically engage with our creations, our emotions extend out to them anyway, seeking a unity of sight and action that only the spiritual can provide.
We, the viewer, grant this incarnation of Jean a power she has rarely possessed in most filmic adaptations of her life. Of the versions I have seen, only Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maid comes close to what Dumont accomplishes. Rivette gives considerably more weight to Joan’s time as a soldier and leader among men than he does to her trial or execution, the sensational bits of suffering that usually attract the most attention. For Dumont, as for Rivette, Joan is not a victim or even a martryr, though perhaps she will become those things in the sequel Dumont has already begun work on. She is a visionary, a thinker, an empowered being of action. Though Dreyer and Bresson’s versions are both indisputable in their own greatness, there is a certain strength and sense of heroism in Jeannette. It is not Jean’s suffering that made her a saint, but her struggle to curb the suffering of others.