‘Joan of Arc’ Presents A Cinematically Challenging Portrayal (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: B-

It helps knowing something of director Bruno Dumont prior to going into his latest film, Joan of Arc (Jeanne, in its native French). Dumont is something of an enigmatic filmmaker, treading the extremely thin line that exists between strict realism and the avant-garde. It’s an off-putting juxtaposition that will leave most audiences feeling lost and/or bored.

Dumont has no interest in most audiences, however. He approaches film with an artist’s flair, and makes works that please him and him alone. Whether or not you’re on the ride with him is of little to no importance.

As it is with all Dumont’s films, this approach will either work for you, or it won’t. There’s no denying that it can lead to challenging works of cinema that refuse to placate audiences by adhering to the strict rules of the form. In Joan of Arc, it leads to a film in which most of the action takes place of screen. The great battles both won and lost by the sainted young girl remain unseen, with Dumont, who also wrote the script based on a play by Charles Peguy, focusing his and our eye on the esoteric and the philosophical.

Long time fans will recognize Joan of Arc as a sequel to 2017’s Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, which, as a musical, fully embraced Dumont’s avant-garde side. That conceit is largely abandoned here, save for two scenes, as the director zeroes in on the dialectic. Viewers can expect long, drawn out scenes in which good and evil, right and wrong, and heresy and piety are at odds through the medium of discourse. The battlefield is replaced by the field of debate, with Dumont and his film using Joan of Arc’s story as a way to explore the timeless questions of obedience and personal honor.

Lisa Leplat Prudhomme returns to the role as an older, more hardened Joan near the end of France’s battles with England. Refusing to adhere to the terms of the truce, she tries to continue her crusade against the English invaders, leading to her arrest and trial for heresy by the church.

Coming in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, Joan of Arc is a long film that feels even longer given its reliance on dialog and discussion to push the story and its themes forward. This is not a film for the easily bored or distracted, and those craving bloody, Game of Thrones-esque mayhem should train their eye towards other heights.

That said, it isn’t hard to be sucked into Dumont’s vision. Even with the musical angle dropped, Dumont’s writing carries a distinct lyrical quality that can be enrapturing. It’s not hard to see where the debates and discussions held in trial could have been turned into something operatic, with verses and arias standing in for the arguments for and against the charges of heresy.

Central to the film is the idea of submission: do we submit to the will of The Church or to the will of God? Is there a difference between them, and which brings more honor? At face value, and ignoring the questions of mental illness that haunt her story from our modern vantage, the true story of Joan of Arc is one that reminds us that the institutions of man, even church, are corruptible. Outside influences and agendas plague the roles of leadership and twist them into something they’re not.

Indeed, atrocities committed in God’s name are carried out and justified even today. How little things have changed in 600 years! There’s a reason Joan of Arc’s story resonates through the ages; it speaks to our innermost desires and the ceaseless battle between what is right and what is asked that plagues us to this day.

In Dumont’s hands, these ideas are discussed and examined exhaustively. Words cross like swords as the defiant young Jeanne verbally combats her accusers for the right to claim God’s word. Where tedium threatens, however, Dumont manages to pull out an at times fascinating look at both the life of France’s hero and the larger philosophical quandaries that plague us all.

It’s difficult to deny that Joan of Arc will appeal to none but the most ardent cinephiles and Dumont fans, and even then it’s something of a slog. It takes time to meet the film on the level with which its maker intended and, as such, it does its level best to repel you away before you can get there. This is a difficult film but, like most difficult films, it is not without its own rewards. How far you’re willing to go to find those rewards is a question you must ask yourself before embarking on this journey. Most will, perhaps correctly, turn away. In this case, I wouldn’t fault the validity of that choice.

Joan of Arc is now available on various on demand platforms.

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One Response

  1. Either the movie or this review has gotten a number of things wrong about Joan of Arc’s trial. Historians have pointed out that the English government engineered the trial because Joan had opposed them: English government records show that they selected the tribunal members and judge, who had served as an adviser to the English occupation government since 1420. Many of the tribunal members later admitted the charges were deliberately false and the transcript was falsified on important issues. “Submission to the Church” had nothing to do with it: she had previously been approved by high-ranking clergy at Poitiers in March of 1429, which is all the medieval Church required of mystics and visionaries, who were numerous in that era and often consulted for advice by the high-ranking clergy themselves (such as when St. Catherine of Siena was consulted by Pope Urban VI). It wasn’t considered “heretical”. After the English were driven out of northern France toward the end of the war, Joan’s family petitioned the Church to investigate the trial, leading the chief Inquisitor to conduct a series of investigations (in May 1452 and from November 1455 thru July 1456) which led to a reversal of the verdict on 7 July 1456.
    The issue of mental illness has been debunked by both historians and doctors: all mental disorders produce specific overt symptoms that can be used as a basis for determining whether she had these disorders (e.g. schizophrenia usually produces chronic memory loss and other debilitating symptoms, whereas the eyewitnesses said Joan had an extremely precise memory; temporal lobe epilepsy produces seizures which would have been noticeable and alarming to the people of the time if she had truly been afflicted with epilepsy, and so on for other mental disorders).

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