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Film review: Joan of Arc

26 June 2020

Stephen Brown views the latest film to tackle the life of Joan of Arc

New Wave Films

Lise Leplat-Prudhomme plays Joan (right) in Joan of Arc, partly filmed in Amiens Cathedral

Lise Leplat-Prudhomme plays Joan (right) in Joan of Arc, partly filmed in Amiens Cathedral

DESPITE more than 70 predecessors, nothing is quite like Bruno Dumont’s film Joan of Arc (no BBFC Cert.) now online. Quasi-Socratic dialogue amid anachronistic settings features a ten-year old as the Maid of Orléans in what occasionally feels like a stage musical.

Like the late film director Éric Rohmer, Dumont taught philosophy before making his first film, The Life of Jesus. Professedly agnostic, he has continued to savour religion’s mysticism, preferring to re-mythologise it in cinematic representations. Art, he claims, is probably the origin of institutional religion. Hadewijch (Arts, 17 February 2012), Outside Satan (Arts, 4 January 2013), and Camille Claudel 1915 (Arts, 27 June 2014) all deal with transcendence. And here we are again. Dumont chose Amiens Cathedral for Joan’s heresy trial because of its Gothic verticality, as it suffuses light while soaring heavenwards.

One can tell that the film was first a play. Charles Péguy’s 1897 drama was written when he was still an atheist. Dumont picks up on some of its philosophical ideas. It opens on 8 May 1429. Among sand dunes strewn with anti-tank concrete blocks, there is debate about a recent battle. Joan (Lise Leplat Prudhomme), a slip of a girl with a commanding presence, remains convinced that they will liberate France from the English. Saints have told her so. Jean Seberg apart, rarely does anyone close to Joan’s late teenage years play her. Renée Falconetti in Dreyer’s masterpiece was 35; Ingrid Bergman was 39. Casting a pre-pubescent child in the present version stems from belief in Joan’s timelessness.

New Wave FilmsNew Wave Films

Both Péguy and Dumont are influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson. He perceived reality as a perpetual becoming, forever remaking itself. In Joan we are presented with action as the expression of spiritual truths, a phenomenon constantly repeated over the ages. Hence the reason that Dumont uses modern artefacts to link the 15th century with our own. The scene ends with an extended close-up of Joan as we hear a Christophe composition.

The sequence is reminiscent of the fervently Catholic Robert Bresson, whose meditative shots, exposing our inner souls, suggest what de Caussade called the sacrament of the present moment. It is a silence in which we are left to imagine what is going on inside Joan’s head. Her occasional skyward glances provide a clue, though Dumont would prefer the Joan figure to represent our quest to discover heaven in ordinary.

George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Saint Joan states that there are no villains in the piece; nor are there in this new film. Clerics do their best to save Joan from damnation on account of the voices that she hears. The problem lies in the malignancy of contemporary dogmas that captivate their reasoning. Joan’s intuition and well-earthed experience of life are more than a match for them. Throughout the film, she questions conventional wisdom, alerting us to the possibility of new beginnings. “We must think of what we must be,” she says.

Joan epitomises our eternal desire for freedom while attending to those inner voices of confusion. It is the mystery of our human condition. Péguy, who subsequently converted to Catholicism, maintained that everything begins in such mysticism and ends in politics. Dumont has created a work of art which gives expression to this notion.

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