Given the bland homogeneity that tends to bedevil the vast majority of the world’s cinematic output, one hesitates to criticize a filmmaker too harshly for attempting something bold and eccentric, no matter how questionable the result. Time tends to be kind to even the most misguided experiments, after all. (Heck, even Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake now has its defenders!) Accordingly, it would perhaps be predictable and a little shortsighted to come down too hard on writer-director Burno Dumont’s perplexing Joan of Arc, notwithstanding its, um, choices. Unfailingly gorgeous and fitfully hypnotic, Dumont’s film is too precise to ever feel like a sweaty fiasco. However, there is no overlooking its puzzling opacity, or how little insight or novelty Dumont ultimately manages to wring from 137 minutes of stilted weirdness.
Joan of Arc is a sort-of-sequel to Dumont’s more bracing and successful 2017 effort, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a feature that dropped the French heroine (and eventual Catholic saint) into the mutant cinematic hybrid of a religious mystery play and heavy-metal rock opera. The result is even weirder than it sounds. Jeannette is stacked with awkward, nonprofessional performances, and it unfolds in a curiously empty landscape of stony hills and grass-studded sand dunes. (It is certainly more The Last Temptation of Christ than The Messenger.) Although often baffling, Jeannette exhibited a certain high-concept punk insolence, as though Dumont were simultaneously de-mystifying an iconic figure and emphasizing the alienating fakery of historical re-creations.
Like the director's previous feature, Joan of Arc is loosely adapted from a play by early-20th-century French essayist, poet, and editor Charles Péguy, whose Catholic faith strongly influenced his later work. Although the filmmaker’s new feature is not, strictly speaking, a direct sequel to Jeannette, Dumont cheekily casts the actress who previously portrayed Joan as an 8-year-old child, Lise Leplat Prudhomme. Rather than wait another decade to produce his follow-up, Dumont anachronistically slips the 10-year-old Prudhomme into a suit of diminutive armor for the tale of Joan’s late military career and her eventual capture, trial, and execution. (In truth, the historical Joan would have been about 17 at the time of the film’s opening events in 1429.)
Of all the curious artistic choices in Joan of Arc, this age discrepancy proves to be the most rewarding. Prudhomme brings a blunt, pint-sized ferocity to the role that contrasts sharply with the tedious small talk and pompous dissembling uttered by every other character in the film. In Dumont’s imagining, Joan is not so much otherworldly as she is uniquely fed up and defiant. There are traces of the religious visionary in Prudhomme’s portrayal, mostly captured by Dumont in extended close-ups that seem to contemplate the young actress’ cherubic features as though they were a mandala. However, this Joan is more of a political wild card than a spiritual leader. Her mere existence seems to frustrate allies and adversaries alike, who cannot wrap their heads around a mere girl who brushes aside the opinions of veteran soldiers, the arguments of learned prelates, and the commands of sovereign monarchs.
Aside from the outside-the-box casting of its titular heroine, Joan of Arc’s penchant for po-faced historical revisionism and other estranging weirdness proves to be a mixed bag. At times, Dumont’s approach is almost that of a Brechtian stage production, where, for example, a solitary barred cell in the side of a hillock stands in for the dungeons of Rouen Castle. In what is perhaps the most whimsical and unabashedly cinematic expression of this tendency, Joan of Arc envisions the Siege of Paris in September 1429 as a choreographed routine involving just two dozen mounted knights trotting in rows and circles on a grassy field. (Seen from above, this equestrian ballet looks like nothing so much as a 1930s Busby Berkeley number.) Elsewhere, Dumont adopts a style that is closer to realism. However, the production design is more opportunistic than opulent, with the stunning gothic interiors of the Amiens Cathedral standing in for royal halls and ecclesiastical courts.
It’s unclear what purpose the film’s idiosyncratic approach to design is intended to serve, beyond calling attention to the absurd futility of any cinematic effort to re-create history. As in Jeannette, the actors in Dumont's latest feature are primarily nonprofessionals, and their wooden-bordering-on-dreadful line readings draw attention to Joan of Arc’s fakery. However, such arch self-awareness does not make the more wince-worthy performances any less embarrassing to watch. Often, the way that characters speak seems to be more compelling to the filmmakers than the content of the dialogue; the guttural, almost strained blathering of one tribunal cleric being a particularly mesmerizing spectacle. Similarly, Dumont seems to have cast his film with an eye toward fascinating, unconventional faces, perhaps as a nod to the memorably grotesque countenances of Joan’s accusers in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Unlike its predecessor, Joan of Arc is not a full-blown musical, although the soundtrack prominently features what seem to be original (and very anachronistic) songs from French pop veteran Christophe. One of these is even diegetic: The late singer-songwriter – who died last month from Covid-19-complicated pulmonary disease – portrays a priest who performs a honeyed aria celebrating Joan’s imminent immolation and eternal damnation. This moment is the closest Joan of Arc ever comes to striking the poker-faced satirical tone that appears to have been Dumont’s goal. Much like the graceless acting, the meandering drabness of the film’s dialogue seems to have been intended as a joke, especially when it comes to the priests’ crabbed grandstanding during Joan’s trial. What exactly the joke might be (and at whose expense) is not entirely clear, which seems like the definition of a comedic fail.
After establishing a reputation as one of France’s grimmest auteurs with the likes of L'Humanité (1999) and Twentynine Palms (2003), Dumont shifted in the 2010s to more quirky, outlandish works in film (Slack Bay) and television (Li’l Quinquin, Coincoin and the Extra-Humans). Joan of Arc often feels like an attempt to awkwardly split the difference between these two phases of the director’s career. The feature’s eccentric style and didactic political subtext clearly mark it as a French art film, with Dumont and his collaborators upending expectations one minute and testing the audience’s patience the next. (Also: What could be more “French artiste” than radically reimagining a French national hero?) Yet Joan of Arc also feels like a vague, misguided comedy sketch interminably drawn out to a feature-length running time. Dumont aims his oddly grave stripe of mockery at numerous targets – among them, patriarchal power structures, Golden Age mythmaking, and the inherent inanity of biopic filmmaking – but nothing hits its mark. In the moment, there’s often enough artistic verve and cinematic loveliness on display to distract from the film’s hollowness. Ultimately, however, Joan of Arc is more likely to elicit head-scratching over its distracting quirks than applause at its daring.