Cannes 2017: Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

On Film / The Daily — May 24, 2017

“Love them or hate them, the films of Bruno Dumont never cease to confound,” begins Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “For a long time the 59-year-old auteur was known for his uncompromising—and uncompromisingly bleak—early works like The Life of Jesus and Humanité, which featured amateur actors and were set in the darkest corners of northern France. Then the director switched gears about five years ago with the Juliette Binoche-starrer Camille Claudel 1915, following that up with the surprisingly hilarious TV mini-series, Li’l Quinquin. After another stab at comedy with Slack Bay, which played in competition last year, Dumont is back at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight with an attempt at, well, musical comedy in the bizarre yet often exhilarating spiritual Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc).”

“Even the frequently out-of-tune singing and chintzy synthesizer soundtrack add to a sense of levity and play, a tone Dumont’s never pulled off as comfortably as he does here,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door. “Set in a small swath of 15th-century countryside, the film is a highly fictionalized account of Joan of Arc’s spiritual and nationalist awakening at the height of the Hundred Years’ War. The shepherdess and future martyr struggles with her calling through song, first as a precocious eight-year-old (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) and then as an emboldened teenager (Jeanne Voisin), ready to unite France if she can sneak her mission past her parents.”

“As in Staub-Huillet’s work,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “here is the bracing delight of cinema’s core pleasure: the camera conjuring fierce physicality, light changes, the sounds of a specific place, the encounter of another person’s presence—and that person’s inextricable role as a participant in making or unmaking the world around them. Prudhomme is beguiling, the perfect mix of precision and sloppy play, she joins Falconetti as a full person and true embodiment of Christian fervor, doubt, ego, devotion and ambition. . . . In its spare focus and unvarying location, Dumont's fabulous film stringently channels provincial desperation, nationalist shame, religious aspiration and spiritual yearning into a form nearly naked in its vulnerable faith and silliness.”

Writing for Screen, Lisa Nesselson notes that “all the dialogue and lyrics drawn from two volumes by the oft-cited Socialist-Catholic-mystic poet and essayist Charles Péguy (1873-1914),” but “the film wears its literary and historical pedigree lightly, with religious fervor channelled into silly dances and earnest expressions while the young shepherdess’s sheep graze in the background, emitting the occasional bleat.”

“Granted, it’s a glorious idea, though Dumont is hardly the director to do it,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge, “and the result feels outrageous on all accounts: a blasphemous assault on French history, religion, and the musical genre.”

This is “an absolutely unusual musical, but at the same time it is a very ‘Dumontian’ film,” argues Mónica Delgado at desistfilm. “His style is clearly recognizable in the actors’ direction, in its ‘medieval’ physiognomies, in the austerity of his mise in scene and also in the clear familiarity with the absurdist comedy he’s been working in in the last years.” What we have here is “an iconoclastic and renewed Dumont.”

Writing for the Guardian, Leslie Felperin singles out “twin sisters Aline and Elise Charles who jointly play Madame Gervaise, a local lady who sets an example to Jeanne by becoming a nun. Although their dancing looks a bit like that of drunk maiden aunts trying to channel Pan’s People, their entwined singing voices and self-composed melodies are quite haunting, and it’s no surprise that Dumont asked them to help write the songs for several of the other characters. Later on we’re treated to a performance by local rapper Nicholas Leclaire as Jeanne’s uncle, a glorious display of gurning, mugging and disco moves. All of the above would be more amusing, even endearing, if Dumont hadn’t chosen to hire in IGORR to compose the music, a dismal sludge of heavy metal thrashing and faux operatic trills that all sounds the same after half an hour but must be endured for 90 minutes more.”

But for IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “IGORR’s soundtrack is a competent, album-length range of soulful declarations.”

“There are only two possibilities here,” proposes Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa: “either it’s all a huge joke, poking fun at the rhetoric of France’s extreme right-wing parties (and its foundation in a questionable definition of nationhood) and satirizing the great mystical quest of their most emblematic figure—which, in any case, would not entirely justify the prolonged assault on the audience’s eardrums—or else the film has no deeper level at all. If anything, that would be even more aggravating.”

More in French from Olivier Père.

Update, 5/25: “Dumont’s power metal Bible study shouldn’t have made it out of the church basement, let alone receive a headlining slot at the Cannes sidebar,” argues Bradley Warren at the Playlist.

Update, 5/26: Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com: “Spirituality has always been at the forefront of Dumont's work; his best film, Hadewijch, centered on a young woman studying to become a nun, attempts to tease out the line between faith and fanaticism. But Jeannette shows that he can explore those themes without his usual overweening seriousness. It's the kind of film that would've been booed in competition—it's too small, weird, and goofy—but one of the pleasures of Cannes is that it's big enough to accommodate even curiosities like this one.”

Updates, 5/27: Jeannette “is one of the true UFOs I have encountered in my ten years of Cannes attendance,” writes Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker. “So aberrant and ruthless is its pursuit of new forms of poetry, luminance and madness that it can be (and very much has been) confused for cretinism itself. . . . Through her depiction of Joan, Falconetti and Dreyer practically invented a cinema of the face, detached and lacerated by the cut; here, Dumont reconfigures that legacy, re-tracing her radiance and prodigious energy to somewhere beyond the body, exorcising all dispensable energy to make room for the Holy Spirit.”

Daniel Kasman and Kurt Walker’s video interview with Dumont is up at the Notebook (11’03”).

Update, 7/4: “Pitched somewhere between Straub-Huillet and Headbangers Ball, Monty Python and Messiaen, Bruno Dumont’s new feature Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc marks an unexpected and near-perfect synthesis of the French iconoclast’s many disparate interests and obsessions,” writes Jordan Cronk in Cinema Scope.

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