The landscapes of northern France are to the filmmaker Bruno Dumont what rock quarries were to the old Power Rangers: No matter the spiritual conflict at hand, his movies will always find their way to the familiar hillsides. In Joan Of Arc, the second half of his unorthodox two-part biopic of the patron saint of France, these shrubby dunes are the windswept barrens of history. Joan (Lise Leplat Prudhomme), a tween in armor, stands before invisible armies and sieges. Whiny counselors and commanders come and go on foot, among them the notorious Gilles de Rais, to a slow, mocking dum-dum drumbeat, pointing to besieged cities that one presumes are hidden just behind in the bushes. When a battle finally arises, it’s depicted as a dressage competition. And while the Maid Of Orléans, who died at 19, has most famously been portrayed by women in their 30s, she is here played by a preadolescent.
On an intellectual level, Dumont is obviously laying bare a choreography of power. But there’s no denying that the proceedings feel a tad Monty Python—though Dumont is at this point no stranger to self-parody. From Humanité on, he established an international reputation as a director of abstruse arthouse miseries. Then his career took a left turn with the miniseries Li’l Quinquin. Dumont found a perfect counterpoint for his themes of unlikely grace and transcendence in surreal humor, and his movies suddenly became funny. While Joan Of Arc doesn’t try to match the wackiness of the first part of his Joan project, Jeannette: The Childhood Of Joan Of Arc, it still has its moments of sketch comedy. In one scene, a torturer expounds on his art; in another, a trio of English guards decide that drinking on the job doesn’t constitute a dereliction of duty, because if Joan were really a witch, she would have flown away by now. But the whole is nonetheless exasperating by design.
The conceptual underpinnings are blatant, and would probably be more tiresome if it weren’t for Dumont’s preference for non-professional actors who seem handpicked for eccentricity. These are awkward, believably medieval-looking people. Clumsily maneuvering next to a precocious Joan, they recite windbaggery that is the 15th-century equivalent of political euphemism; what some centuries later would be known as “enhanced interrogation” is here referred to as “the blessed terror that will allow us to save her.” The droll Brechtian courtroom drama of Joan’s trial for heresy takes up something like 80 minutes of the movie. Dumont stages it entirely in the chancel of the Cathedral Of Our Lady Of Amiens, against a floor that resembles a game board, architectural proportions that dwarf the already diminutive Prudhomme, and an altarpiece that represents nothing more than pomposity. Joan’s prison, in turn, is depicted by a World War II bunker.
It’s worth noting that in the previous film, Jeannette, the teenage Joan Of Arc was played by one Jeanne Voisin. The decision to return the role to Prudhomme (who played Joan as an 8-year-old in that film) has its own implications. It tells us that everyone sees her as a little girl, though the intensity of Prudhomme’s performance also makes her seem determined and confident way beyond her years. The sincerity of Dumont’s approach to the character is one of the strengths of the project, both here and in Jeannette, which tried to conjure up the early life of a saint through a child’s-eye viewpoint, filled with faux-naïve flourishes and inexplicable strangeness. His Joan is a figure of purity in a world that, we are led to believe, consists largely of empty gestures.
That isn’t to say that Dumont is above goofing on his influences. In many respects, Joan Of Arc plays like a dry send-up of two art-film traditions. The first is the storied French institution of abstractly conceived medieval romances, as represented by the likes of Éric Rohmer’s Perceval Le Gallois and Robert Bresson’s Lancelot Du Lac—not to mention Bresson’s own The Trial Of Joan Of Arc. The second is the larger European tradition of idiosyncratic interpretations of ancient text, which includes the rigorous adaptation experiments of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (an apparent inspiration for the Joan project) and the later history films of Roberto Rossellini, who also made a Joan Of Arc movie in the middle of his career.
But above all, it exists in conversation with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. One might even go so far as to say that some familiarity with Dreyer’s silent masterpiece is required to understand what Dumont is getting at here, as every creative decision in Joan Of Arc constitutes an intentional contradiction of the expressionistically anguished Passion—all the way up to the final shot. Dumont is hardly the first arthouse director to aspire to Dreyer’s level, though he might be the only one to go about it by trying to cut the great Dane down to size. Dreyer parody has become a staple of the “funny” Dumont; Slack Bay, the Python-esque comedy about inbred upper-class nitwits and cannibal hicks that preceded the Joan films, included a send-up of Dreyer’s Ordet.
The earlier Jeanette was (among its many quirks) a musical, and some parts of that concept carry over into Joan Of Arc. There are a few songs that are used as something like internal monologues; they are heard over shots of the sky alternated with extreme overhead angles of a heavenward-looking Joan. There’s a high angle in the aforementioned combat-as-dressage sequence that vaguely recalls Busby Berkeley musicals, and a cameo from the 1960s and ’70s singer Christophe (who died of COVID-19 complications last month). But though it has a silly sense of humor, Joan Of Arc lacks a sense of surprise—something that can’t be said of other recent Dumont projects.
Once the strictures and formal rules of its artistic M.O. have been established, the rest becomes just a matter of time. Dumont has never been one to hurry, and the plodding longueurs here are as intentional and self-effacing as the austerities and distancing effects. Less intended, perhaps, is the fact that a viewer may find themselves identifying with one of Joan’s ecclesiastical jurors, who insists at every opportunity that his colleagues stop wasting their breath and burn her already. He’s right in the sense that the church court is just dragging its feet to a foregone conclusion. In its own way, so is the film.
Available in virtual theaters May 22.