The inspiring tragedy of the 15th-century teenager who persuaded the French establishment to give her an army with which to fight the British, only to be betrayed, tried and burned at the stake, has enticed filmmakers since the silent era. This latest version, however, is lacking. With a running time of almost six hours, the pic should have an inner tension and momentum with which to grip audiences over such a long and demanding period. This is especially true considering the film was designed to screen in two parts, with tickets for each sold separately. Attendance patterns will be interesting; the bet is that there will be a marked drop-off
Such diverse directors as Cecil B. De Mille, Victor Fleming, Otto Preminger, Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson all tackled the subject. Though Ingrid Bergman (in the Fleming) and Jean Seberg (in the Preminger) were impressive, it’s generally conceded that the definitive Joan was played by Falconetti in Dreyer’s great 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which dealt only with Joan’s trial and execution.
Jacques Rivette’s ambitious, enormously long and detailed production toplines Sandrine Bonnaire as the Maid, and though she’s too old for the role (Joan died at 19), she gives a mostly impressive performance, especially in the trial scenes; she also rides a horse and carries a banner with style. But she lacks the glowing charisma that the real Joan must surely have had.
Simplicity is the main element here. Rivette tells the story of Joan in meticulous detail, with spare sets and costumes, and refers in the narrative to precise dates and times of day. The action is regularly punctuated by “witnesses” who face the camera and quietly fill in gaps in the story; this makes the political and religious machinations much clearer than before, but also slows the personal drama of Joan’s brief career.
The titles of the two parts are misleading. Part 1, “The Battles,” is almost entirely composed of scenes in which Joan tries to convince French officials that she is indeed sent from God and can save France from the English and make the Dauphin king. The last half-hour contains some desultory battle scenes, structured around the siege of Orleans, though it looks as though no more than about 30 extras were used in any one shot. Other filmmakers working on a budget, notably Orson Welles in “Chimes at Midnight,” have been more successful in creating the feeling of medieval armed conflict.
The battles continue at the beginning of Part 2, “The Prisons,” which then describes in exhaust-ing detail the shifting politics that culminated in Joan’s trial and execution.
Bonnaire’s Joan is diminutive, determined, unsophisticated; the actress dominates the film but never makes as much of an impression as she should.
The large supporting cast gives her ample backup, with no real standouts except perhaps Stephane Boucher as a soldier who can’t stop swearing (something that offends the strait-laced Joan).
Jordi Savall has composed a beautiful score that is used too sparingly; most of the film plays with natural sound, which is effective in the final, restrained sequence at the stake but leaves a void elsewhere.
It seems certain that there’ll be divergence among critics over Rivette’s extremely demanding film, which isn’t nearly as successful as his previous effort, “La Belle Noiseuse.”
Given the latter’s enthusiastic reception, it was surprising when Rivette later produced a shorter version; “Joan” offers up a much more plausible argument for cutting, which could make it more accessible.