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New Release Review [Curzon Home Cinema] - JOAN OF ARC

joan of arc bruno dumont review
The Maid of Orléans' teen years.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Bruno Dumont

Starring: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-Francois Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini

joan of arc bruno dumont poster

Bring back Jane Wiedlin.

At what point in Joan of Arc - Bruno Dumont’s sequel to his own Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a historical drama which depicted the Maid of Orléans’ earlier, funnier years to Joan of Arc’s representation of the latterly canonised Roman Catholic saint’s trial at the hands of partisan religious eggheads -  do you give in to the heart sinking sensation that you, as a person who loves films and as a critic (!) who wants to evaluate the best of what you see, are actually watching a deeply boring and really quite misguided movie?

joan of arc bruno dumont review

There are clues from the off. We see little Jeanne (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) having a bit of a pray in the film’s opening. The scene is set up really oddly: Jeanne is supplicating behind a hedgerow on a country path, like those annoying people who stop and check their phones on narrow country lanes when you are out walking the dogs. The scene looks ad hoc, inexpert. Perhaps, you think, perhaps Dumont is making the aesthetic point that religious worship can be quotidian and not necessarily dramatic. The score is all leery though, even at this point, doing some heavy lifting to imbue gravitas… Still, the costumes are great. And surely there will be kilometrage in the northern French countryside (Wissant, here), a bleak and sketchy landscape which always photographs with beautiful ennui.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - The Ground Beneath My Feet ]

It is hard, though, as the story continues, to think of an uglier film. It must be deliberate, this anti-style which Dumont utilises throughout the unforgiving 137 minute running time (I too now know how these martyrs suffered…), which is essentially made up of people talking at each other. The way in which scenes are blocked, with characters, usually a trio, set at different points within the completely static frame - one at the foreground, the middle, the back; all facing the camera while intoning dialogue drier than the kindling used to eventually burn someone at the stake - is spiritless. Again, you give the film the benefit of the doubt, reasoning that this approach is a Brechtian dynamic which encourages logical consideration of Jeanne’s doctrinal/divine plight. But, by Christ, is it boring to sit through.

joan of arc bruno dumont review

It’s sort of like watching a Radio 4 play about what happened to Joan of Arc: I mean, you can’t fault the clerical detail of the dialogue, which cleaves to the dry verisimilitude of real-life litigation. It does convince as the sort of expansive back and forth which you’ve always imagined higher up church bods indulging in. I closed my eyes and tried to experience the film that way before realising my French wasn’t up to it, and anyway, the cast make no attempt to do more than recite the script, with no emotional cadence or dramatic intonation. I reopened my eyes and the actors were still there, unmoving in their strange triagonal formations. A character even acknowledges the verbosity when they comment on "prodigiously eloquent" discussions… If you say so, camarade.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Exit Plan ]

Except there are these weird moments which, if they do not make up for the static longueurs, then at least seem like attempts to inject some sort of visual interest into the film. Viz. an early battle scene where, to the beat of an insistent tattoo, we get a tight shot of Jeanne’s horse’s trotters. The animal starts moving back in forth in time to the music: the horse is actually dancing. In lieu of a battle, there is this (poorly executed, it has to be said) pseudo-symbolic dressage sequence. From epic theatre to this badly sweded version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a misguided furlong. Once or twice characters also do-whatever-the-opposite-of-burst-is into song, miming to the lachrymose chanson of Gallic popstar Christophe (RIP). Problem is, this is somehow more interesting in print than it actually is rendered upon the screen.

joan of arc bruno dumont review

For a film about a character who, by all accounts, was determined and completely focused on her mission, Joan of Arc is all over le shop. The central location of the Rouen Cathedral is inevitably stunning: but couldn’t the set dresser have removed the incongruously modern looking safety gate which guards a certain pillar? It is a tough watch, yeah, but our sympathy should be reserved for Leplat Prudhomme. Her performance is rich in potential, and if her dignified cherubic presence cannot save the film then it at least keeps the faith throughout. But even she is let down ultimately by Dumont, who directs her to recite her lines at a consistently strained, shouty pitch from where there is nowhere else for the actor to go in this already aimless film.

Passionless.

Joan of Arc is on Curzon Home Cinema from June 19th.




2020 film reviews