Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


"This screening needed a mosh pit" --Blake Williams

Even when I don't like Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms; Flandres), I love Bruno Dumont. That's because there is no other filmmaker like him, no one else willing to take the kinds of risks he takes. At different times I have written about experimental filmmakers who have made work that is so conceptual, so slight, or so non-adherent to medium, that said work risks being completely illegible. An Andy Warhol screen test, a Lynn Marie Kirby colorfield video, or a T. Marie Op Art field, without the proper context, can look like nothing, like a glitch or a set of outtakes for a "real" film.

Among narrative film directors, Dumont is nearly alone in making works that share that risk. They can be dismissed as freaky stunts or conceits "in search of a movie," or as simply meaningless. Why does the cop in L'humanité float? Is it exploitative to place Juliette Binoche in a cast alongside actual mental patients? Why does everyone in Slack Bay seem inbred? But one might just as reasonably ask? How are these situations uniquely cinematic? How do each of these scenarios defy linguistic explanation, instead setting to work in the unconscious with wasplike aggression?

Nobody needed another Joan of Arc story. However Jeannette gives us a look, as the subtitle tells us, at the childhood of Joan, the very beginning of her calling. Whereas we all know how Joan's tale would end, Dumont shows us the incongruity between girlish impetuousness -- a petulant if precocious devotion to her cause -- and the genuine rage at her nation's destruction which will serve as her hallmark. Young Jeannette (the astonishing Lise Leplat Prudhomme) understands that not everyone -- not her friends, nor her family, nor the crown -- will take her religious conviction seriously. After all, she's just a kid.

This is the conundrum that Dumont seizes upon. He makes it the aesthetic dominant for his Jeannette. The kids always want to change the world, but world-weary adults are far too concerned with daily minutiae to sustain such fights. (As is mentioned more than once, the French villagers are willing to submit to the English, if it means an end to war and a return to normalcy.) So Jeannette becomes the upstart, the young punk.

Or the headbanger, to be more accurate. Dumont mounts Jeannette as a musical, its narrative dotted throughout by guitar rock and power ballads, most sung by Prudhomme in a stunning if immature contralto. (The older Jeannette, played by Jeanne Voisin, is every bit as impresssive.) And yes, she and others actually head-bang, shaking their long locks in the open air. As we usually hear Jeannette's sheep bleating in the background, Dumont gives us at least the illusion of direct sound recording which, together with the meadow and forest exteriors, makes the film seem like nothing so much as a Straub-Huillet rock opera.

That is, at least, until Jeannette's sympathetic uncle (Durand Lassois) turns up and starts rapping. He even dabs. I'm not kidding. This movie risks being utterly preposterous. For its trouble, it ends up being flat-out glorious.