Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 13, 2020 10:27 pm 
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BRUNO DUMONT: JOAN OF ARC/JEANNE (2019) - Rendez-Vous with French Cinema


Numbing history

I have followed Bruno Dumont faithfully for many years, even when he's made dramatic shifts of direction with his comic "Quinquin" series and the grotesque "Slack Bay" film, and even the nutty rock-rap fantasy (staged on the sand dunes along a northern sea) about the young Joan of Arc. But with his full-on sequel to that oddball riff on the sainted Joan's early years, Jeannette, entitled Jeanne, he has run off the rails too far and I cannot follow. (Both this and the previous film are inspired by plays by Charles Péguy.)

This would be a funny film if it weren't so boring. Mind you, I am full of admiration for the young actress Lise Leplat Prodhomme, who plays the peasant girl inspired by holy voices to lead French armies for King Charles successfully against his rivals and the English, but who, after her victorious operations faltered, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. Leplat Prodhomme has presence, and speaks always with plenty of conviction. Her passionate commitment to her role is unquestionable, her confidence, her simple, inner faith. When the camera looks her in the eye, she stares right back. It's as intense a gaze as you'll ever see in a film. She could become an actress, with such presence. The trouble is that, especially in the taxing opening sequences, she sometimes seems to be mechanically reciting her lines, looking into space. Nonetheless at the end she seems to embody the role.

But there's a worse problem. The fifteenth-century Jeanne d'Arc was young. But records tell us she was nineteen. Lise is only ten years old now. She's not only too young, but looks too small to lead an army.

More than half this over-long film is devoted to the trial of Joan of Arc, and it's a disaster. As Nick James points out in his BFI review this trial was one of the most fascinating court cases in history: it absorbed "Villon, Voltaire, Southey, Schiller, Coleridge, Thérèse of Lisieux, Mark Twain, Shaw, Brecht (three times), Anouilh and many others." It's been the subject of film classics by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Victor Flemiing (with Ingrid Bergman), Otto Preminger (Jean Seberg's shaky start), as well as Rossellini, Paul Verhoeven, Jacques Rivette, Luc Besson and many others. Bruno Dumont has reduced it to a lengthy and tedious procedural, explaining all the little details, minus any drama other than Joan's stubborn and monotonous determination not to reveal what her voices have told her.

The actors are often buffoonish, but without being funny as in a "Monty Python" episode, which the action here otherwise often resembles. Instead of laughing we pinch ourselves to stay awake and ask how much longer this self-conscious silliness is going to go on. The answer is way, way too long.

Dumont persists in using pairs of odd looking, mismatched men with speech defects. Dolled up in flowing outfits from Central Costumes Rental, in velvet robes and dangling gold medals and cozy cloth caps, a duo of these overdressed, slightly off-key non-actors enthusiastically mumble or jaw their complicated lines listing all the celebrity clerics arriving for the trial. One is tall, and his whole face jiggles when he talks. His interlocutor is short and goofy. This is a bad beginning for the trial sequence that should be so momentous.

As the trial begins, Prodhomme's childlike conviction impresses. But as the proceedings unfold seemingly in real time, they become tedious.

The production, despite crystal-clear cinematography by David Chambille, doesn't compensate for these failings. Shooting the early scenes in the dunes again, where Dumont filmed a lot of his 2016 TV miniseries "Li'l Quinquin" and his four features since then, becomes absurd when Jeanne and various men must stumble through the sand in full armor. The prison Jeanne is held in is a World War II seaside bunker, providing a crude contrast to the grand setting of the trial, which is filmed in Amiens Cathedral in lieu of Rouen, where it actually took place.

The cathedral setting looks beautiful. But it rings false for anyone paying attention, because Amiens is full of glorious gilded baroque decor dating from at least two hundred years later than 1431, the year of the trial. We could overlook such incongruities if this were an interesting script and these were convincing actors, but such is not the case.

The interruption of lip-synched musical numbers composed by the French Seventies rocker Christophe, once famous for his melodic high-pitched ballads, does nothing but slow down the torpid action and render it more absurd.

This whole experience reminded me of my childhood, when my family lived in Williamsburg, Virginia and we attended the historical pageant put on there, with local participants, depicting the history of the early colonies, when Williamsburg was the capital. It was called "The Common Glory," and it went on interminably, with all those amateur actors dutifully reciting their lines.

Jeanne, 137 mins., debuted May 2019 at Cannes in Un Certain Regard, and it was included in at least seven other festivals. The French theatrical release was 11 Sept. 2019. The Paris critics liked it (AlloCiné press rating 3.9 or 78%) - but the AlloCiné spectators poll is 2.2 or 44%, showing a thoroughly unhappy French public. Included in the March 2020 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York, where I was going to have review it. But the Rendez-Vous was cancelled midway due to the coronavirus pandemic, and this was one of the seven films I had yet to see when that happened. It is now being released in digital and on-demand, currently offered by Film at Lincoln Center (sponsors of the Rendez-Vous) on Festival Scope, whereby it was screened for this review. The Anglophone critics have disliked it even more than the AlloCiné spectators: the Metascore is 23%.

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