Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc
KimStim Films; 115 minutes
Many of our most formative experiences—the extremes of pain or joy, moments of terror or sexual ecstasy—can’t be represented within the conventions of so-called realism. In his new film Jeanette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc, writer-director Bruno Dumont (Outside Satan, Hadewijch) attempts to bring his audience inside two of these most personal and disorienting forms of experience: childhood, in which we have not yet learned what to expect from ordinary life; and religious vision, in which those rules are suddenly and terrifyingly overturned.
Jeanette depicts the early life of the girl who would go on to become St. Joan of Arc. It shows the inner life of a visionary child, and as such, it’s got the right to be weird—though the specifics of its weirdness might be enough to deter the casual viewer. Dumont gives us complex theology sung at high speed by a single character who is played by twins; desultory scenes of young Joan sulking; awkward dancing, off-key singing, rapping, miming, and nuns head-banging to thrash metal. (The music for the film is done by Gautier Serre, but it’s easier to imagine what it’s like if you know he’s credited by his stage name, “Igorrr.”) If Vatican City entered the Eurovision Song Contest, Jeanette is what they would submit. For some viewers that will be a warning; for the viewers who take it as enticement, a thrilling film awaits.
Jeanette is an adaptation of two related works by the French poet Charles Péguy, his 1897 Jeanne d’Arc and the 1910 Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. In between the two works, Péguy returned to the Catholic faith. Dumont, for his part, is no believer: “God alienates people from themselves,” he has said. “Yes, my films are mystical, to make people feel the mystery, to inspire them experience for themselves the miracle of existence. . . . Cinema is my religion.” And so Jeanette is a strange breed: an atheist’s adaptation of a writer who was both atheist and Catholic.
What Jeanette captures more than any other film I can think of is the strangeness of Christian faith even to its adherents. Any intimacy we experience with God is unpredictable. For the film’s Joan as for so many believers—even those whose earliest education was formed by faith—God breaks in from the outside. Jarring contrasts, like complex theology issuing from the mouth of a little child, have become almost predictable in art films. But by using these contrasts to depict genuine religious visions, Dumont both revitalizes art-film conventions and portrays, more than any other hagiographical film I know, the weirdness of the saints. (Dumont has praised Alain Cavalier, whose 1986 Thérèse is another unsettled, beautiful film that captures the strange currents of a girl-saint’s mind—though Cavalier worked in a much less aggressive mode.)
Dumont’s film begins in what seems like an idyll: A nine-year-old girl is singing her prayers as she watches her sheep by the side of a winding river. But the prayers are not idyllic. Jeanette (Lise Leplatte Prudhomme) breaks off before she finishes, and begins to change her entreaties into challenges: “Your Name is so far from being hallowed and Your reign from coming,” she laments to God. Under a huge sky, in an expanse of pastoral beauty (this is a gorgeous film that didn’t spend its money on set dressing), Jeanette cries out her frustrations at France’s political divisions—and at the silent God who does not help. She sings fiercely, apocalyptically, “And there is nothing; there is never anything.”
She is so small. Sheep baa in a kind of farmland rimshot punctuating her prayers. She turns cartwheels, because she hasn’t learned to hold her body with adult reserve. She has intense theological arguments with her best friend, another little girl named Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier), both actresses speaking the complex lines with bizarrely credible conviction.
Eventually a nun appears, Madame Gervaise, to guide Jeanette. This sister is played by twin sisters (Aline and Elise Charles). Like all the film’s strange choices, it isn’t pointlessly edgy. When the nun speaks in chorus she is no longer an individual giving an opinion, but the voice of religious community; she is a community within herself, like the Trinity. She’s definitely weird, and there are hints here of the confrontational imagery of a horror movie—she appears out of nowhere, inexplicably doubled, a real person whom Jeanette’s friends know and yet also a vision. She chastises Jeanette (“You must suffer if you [want to] call God to account”). The two of them have a theological song battle, with a rock guitar backing, which rises to a high pitch of ecstasy when they suddenly begin head-banging—and the nun’s wimple falls as her hair, a woman’s glory, the sign that she and Jeanette are alone before God, streams down and whips across her face. It’s a stunning moment, feminine and aggressive all at once, joyous and strange. The mentor becomes young again, and the girl becomes a warrior working herself up before battle.
The visual vocabulary of Jeanette is simple: sky, sheep, river. Late scenes in Jeanette’s father’s hut are the film’s one concession to the idea that audiences might like the occasional change of scenery. The musical vocabulary is not so simple. The combination of unaccompanied singing and thrashing guitars suggests that Joan’s story links our time and her own. The music does not respect the barrier of time; it is as if the audience, like God—and like the saints, interceding in our lives from their vantage point in Heaven—can see and hear from the perspective of infinity. The distance between past and present dissolves in the ecstasy of experiencing the great “I AM.”
The film’s vocabulary of movement is similarly meaningful in its awkward strangeness. These actors delight in their bodies. The children’s bodies twist and stretch and turn upside-down, which is both realistic and perfectly in line with the movie’s portrayal of a world awry and overturned.
Jeanette’s explicit theological concerns include questions about whether one should wish to be damned to rescue others, whether she is called to suffer for the damned, and whether the existence of damned souls should cause her own soul to rebel. These questions, which bring sharp rebukes from Madame Gervaise that Jeanette does her best to accept, are unrelated to the mission the audience knows she will eventually receive. There is a long, incantatory passage about how we don’t know our own happiness—in the midst of our misery we have our happiness in Christ, even if we don’t believe—which, if anything, might suggest that there is no need for a dangerous military mission. Obviously a movie about Saint Joan will depict Christian faith, but Jeanette suggests that its heroine did not understand her own task in the same terms that we would.
Once Jeanette receives her mission, the film screeches to a halt, then meanders around for a while. Jeanette, now played by Jeanne Voisin, tries to find the Dauphin (which we don’t see, because Dauphins are far outside this film’s budget). She fails; she mopes. She ponders the morality of lying, and makes some startlingly bad justifications for it, which the film lets stand. There’s chicken-plucking and artsy dancing which can only be described as “Europeasant,” and the thrills of the movie’s early sections begin to fade.
Presumably it’s easier to give urgency to scenes of ecstatic religious vision than to scenes of everyday confusions and obstacles. Perhaps Dumont intends to depict Jeanette adrift, unguided now that her visionary companions have left her, trying to work out what they might want but struggling to make her own limited resources match her task. She becomes complicit in the usual human self-justifications (man is the rationalizing animal) and struggles to find the path forward. But the danger of form-follows-function is always that the audience will be as confused as the characters. It must be possible to depict frustration without being frustrating. In this final section, both the thinking and the filmmaking seem to slacken.
The final scene recaptures some of the early grandeur. It’s a surprisingly normal and intimate portrayal of the girl riding away from her home. It’s as if we are leaving behind the transforming, surreal inner experience of the childhood visionary, and entering the part of Joan’s life which can be communicated through dates and maps. She rides out of childhood, into adulthood; out of apocalypse, and into history.