The French director Bruno Dumont returns to the subject of his galvanic 2018 “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc” in this not-quite-sequel.
While the real-life Joan died at 19, and has often been played in film by actors a lot older, here Dumont recasts Lise Leplat Prudhomme, now not yet 12, to play Joan the warrior and eventual martyr. The movie doesn’t depict any battles, instead presenting simply staged scenes of Joan’s consultations and prayers and pronouncements. While “Jeanette” depicted a young Joan singing and dancing to arty metal-inflected music, in this movie, she stands still while dreamy electronic pop songs, sung by an unseen voice, function as interior monologues.
Here and in the earlier picture it’s perhaps easy to apprehend Dumont’s approach with a “What’s this oddball up to now?” smirk. But if Dumont is joking at all, it’s a form of what used to be called “kidding on the square.”
In a scene on a sandy knoll, Joan talks with a captain, Gilles de Rais (Julien Manier), who would become a notorious child killer in later years. Dumont makes Gilles her philosophical opponent. His face adorned with boils and pustules, all freshly bleeding, he upbraids Joan for her battlefield address, saying she ought to speak less of the divine and more of looting opportunities for victorious soldiers.
“He who says that is the worst of men,” she shoots back. Some of her associates, mildly repulsed by Gilles but sympathetic to his perspective, suggest she appeal a bit to her soldiers’ baser instincts. Her response: “Men are what they are. But we must think of what we can be.”
Dumont’s depiction of the French priests who try her is striking. Eager to deliver her to “the secular arm,” so that she can be executed without their taking any responsibility, the men are egotistical, cynical and bombastic in a way that’s contemporary without breaking the particular period spell the movie creates.
Speaking of contemporary, one of the priests wears a robe with a cowl that makes him resemble Emperor Palpatine of the “Star Wars” franchise. Once that hood is finally pushed back, some may recognize Christophe, the famed French pop balladeer. He wrote and sang all the movie’s songs in a gravelly, delicate, unsettling falsetto. His performance here combines ominous strength with heartbreaking fragility. As it happens, Christophe died in April, of the emphysema from which he had suffered for some time. He was 74.
Joan of Arc
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes. Watch on Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema.
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