Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2019: "Joan of Arc"

Michael Hayward

There’s no denying that Joan of Arc’s story is a compelling one: a young French peasant girl sees visions, and hears the voice of God. Inspired, she argues with bishops, and eventually with kings, dons armour, leads armies into battle, until her story, and her life, ends in fire.

The first film depicting the story of Joan of Arc was made in 1898, and there is a website which lists over 40 other films featuring Joan—including the 1948 Hollywood version starring Ingrid Bergman as Joan, which played regularly on TV when I was younger, and left me with nightmares. The most famous version is probably The Passion of Joan of Arc, the 1928 silent film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. Luc Besson’s The Messenger (1999) was a big budget affair, with Milla Jovovitch as Joan, an avenging angel in bobbed hair and armour, and John Malkovich and Faye Dunaway in supporting roles. Why, you ask, do we need yet another telling of Joan’s tale? Well, as the French would say: pourquoi pas?

Controversial French auteur Bruno Dumont is the latest to tackle the Joan of Arc story. Dumont has already explored Joan’s early life in his 2017 film Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc, which he chose to do as a kind of low-budget musical. I haven’t seen that film (or any others by Dumont)—but after watching about half of his latest film, Joan of Arc, I can’t imagine that I’ll bother tracking down its prequel.

True: by leaving at the film’s half-way mark, I may have missed a key moment, one scene which could have been enough to make Dumont’s genius evident even to me. But the parts of Joan of Arc that I did see were either drudgery: such as an extended sequence in which the camera slowly zooms in on a stationary Joan (played by the now 12-year old novice actress Lise Leplat Prudhomme), who gazes more or less steadily into the camera while a puerile pop-like song plays on the film’s soundtrack—for a full 4-plus minutes, which felt like 10. Or the film just seemed silly: such as the over-long Busby Berkeley-like shot filmed from an overhead camera drone, in which Joan and her troops prepare for battle by guiding their horses through a series of intricate maneuvers—a sequence that looked as if it had been inspired by the RCMP's Musical Ride.

On-screen characters use dialogue to name (for the audience’s benefit) those characters who are just entering the frame, a device which quickly feels clumsy and heavy-handed. And Dumont saved a lot of money on his sets by staging almost all of the film’s “action” in and amongst sand dunes somewhere in Normandy, and by having the battles take place off-screen: characters refer to these past (or future) battles only in dialogue.

I have only two regrets about leaving the screening halfway through: (1) I missed seeing Dumont’s take on Joan’s burning at the stake (perhaps another song and dance number?); and (2) I wish that I’d left even earlier.

There are no remaining screenings of Joan of Arc during VIFF, but you can read more about the film on the VIFF website, and you can see a trailer here.



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