Monday, September 24, 2018

Movie Review: Jeannette: The: Childhood of Joan of Arc

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont based on the play by Charles Peguy.
Starring: Lise Leplat Prudhomme (Jeannette), Jeanne Voisin (Jeanne – Older), Lucile Gauthier (Hauviette 8 ans), Victoria Lefebvre (Hauviette 13 ans), Aline Charles (Madame Gervaise / Sainte Marguerite), Elise Charles (Madame Gervaise / Sainte Catherine), Nicolas Leclaire (Durand Lassois), Gery De Poorter (Jacques d'Arc), Régine Delalin (Isabeau d'Arc), Anaïs Rivière (Saint Michel).
Recently, every time I watch a film by French provocateur Bruno Dumont, I always struggle to figure out if he’s being serious, or he’s just screwing with us in the audience – someone behind the scenes chuckling that we’re taking what he’s doing seriously. The answer usually comes back as he’s doing both – and more often than not, he’s doing it well. His earlier films – L’humanitie and twenty-nine palms, were very serious provocations indeed, perhaps too much so. Sometime in the last few years, he seems to have embraced self-parody, making the same types films he always had, but now playing them for laughs in films like Lil Quinquin and Slack Bay (perhaps even Camille Claudel 1915 – a film I struggled mightily with). It’s certainly on display in Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc - it is undeniably one of the most singular movie watching experiences of the year – but I’m not sold that that’s always such a good thing.
The film is essentially a two act film, one with Jeannette at 8, and another with her at 13, as we see signs of the religious fury that will push her towards her destiny. As with many of Dumont’s films, the actors are all non-professionals, the awkwardness of their performances being part of the point. Oh, and this time, he’s made a heavy metal musical, complete with hang banging children, and in the second act to keep things lively, he introduces a rapping, dabbing uncle of Jeannette’s.
Everything Dumont does here is deliberate. He shoots the film entirely outdoors, usually with only a few characters around – including a pair of twins – Aline and Elise Charles – playing one character (at the same time). There is constant talk about the English invasion ruining the country, and yet we see no signs of any war in the film. The costumes and production design (what little there is) looks cheap and deliberately thrown together – like they showed up on set and had an hour to throw the look of the film together, and this is the best they could do. The singing isn’t particularly great, the dancing is awkward and jerky, the dialogue repetitive, etc. If you didn’t know Dumont, you may well think this was a low rent version thrown together by middle school kids with no money.
That is, of course, the point of Dumont’ film – although for the life of me, I cannot quite figure out why it’s the point he wants to make. When you look at his earlier films, you do see a filmmaker trying to be a modern Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his later films still very much bare their influence, from the Ordet-like subplot in Slack Bay, to the obvious inspiration of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, to the way he uses non-professionals, and tries to sap their emotions out of their performances like Bresson. But now, it reads like an elaborate prank rather than a serious artistic impression. He is essentially making an anti-comedy here, and that’s a genre that for me is usually more painful than anything.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is unlike any other film you will see this year. Perhaps that’s the reason Dumont made it all – to be different. But perhaps there’s a good reason why you don’t see too many films like every year. For better or worse (and often, it was both), the earlier, more serious Dumont was a man with an artistic vision. He still has one, I just cannot quite figure out what his point is anymore.

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