Film Review: ‘Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc’

Bruno Dumont offers a bizarre treatment of Joan of Arc's early years flies in the face of musical and religious conventions.

Bruno Dumont
Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jeanne Voisin, Luicle Gauthier, Victoria Fefebvre, Aline Charles, Elise Charles, Nicolas Leclaire, Gery De Poorter, Regine Delalin, Anaïs Rivière.

We all know how Joan of Arc’s story ends: in a blaze of glory. But how did her 15th-century campaign to liberate France begin? That’s where Bruno Dumont’s “Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc” comes in, taking the early chapters of the future saint’s life — from her first religious vision to her decision to fight — and bringing them to life through song. Granted, it’s a glorious idea, though Dumont is hardly the director to do it, and the result feels outrageous on all accounts: a blasphemous assault on French history, religion, and the musical genre.

An avowed atheist, Dumont dedicated the early stretch of his career to making films that disavow the presence of God in a world dominated by brute human behavior, then surprised everyone three years ago by discovering his funny bone with the delightfully absurdist “Li’l Quinquin,” a bucolic murder mystery commissioned as a miniseries for French television. Also commissioned for the small screen (though a separate theatrical version debuted in Cannes), “Jeannette” reflects the director’s ongoing desire to upset expectations, with less clear — and far less competent — results.

Set in the sandy terrain of Dumont’s native Calais region, not far from the northern French coast, “Jeannette” takes the words of French poet Charles Péguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc” (an obscure play, seldom produced) and sets them to music. But not just any music — intense, eardrum-rattling death metal, with a bit of a freestyle rap thrown in for good measure. Granted, young Joan’s emotions ran strong, but one can’t help but laugh when the 8-year-old shepherd girl starts head-banging to the beat of a holy drum.

What on earth is Dumont getting at? Is he poking fun at the notion that such a young woman might be called to rise up against the English occupation? Or is there real admiration in this bizarre portrayal, in which a clean-scrubbed young lady comes sauntering through the dunes, singing a custom version of the Lord’s Prayer?

The question isn’t so much what an 8-year-old understands of religion (children often find it easier to believe) as what she knows of life, and apart from a lone column of smoke rising in the far distance, there’s little sense that she’s been touched by the English who’ve been pillaging her country for the better part of the Hundred Years’ War. But this is Péguy’s text that Dumont is using, and one wonders whether the problem is that the actress playing 8-year-old Joan (whom best friend Hauviette still calls “Jeannette”) doesn’t understand what she’s singing, or that Dumont has made minimal effort to insist that she convey any of the meaning behind her words.

The idea, over the course of the movie, is to reveal how young Joan arrived at her convictions, which would later send her first into battle and ultimately to her death at the stake (although those more ecstatic chapters have been covered in earnest over the years by directors ranging from George Méliès to Carl Theodor Dreyer to Otto Preminger to Luc Besson). By starting out so young, Dumont risks making Joan look silly, just as it would if any filmmaker were to eavesdrop on Hitler dreaming of world domination at age 8.

The director typically favors nonprofessional actors with odd, inbred-looking features, though he’s gone with a pair of rural beauties here, casting fierce first-timer Lise Leplat Prudhomme as the 8-year-old Joan and teen knockout Jeanne Voisin to play her roughly five years later. The actresses look remarkably similar, which is a plus, although there’s a world of difference between their abilities.

Looking like one of the burlap-clad shepherds in a grammar-school Christmas pageant, Prudhomme probably ought to be dancing to Justin Bieber, not hardcore heavy-metal anthems by the likes of IGORRR, the unclassifiable French electro-pop artist whose anarchic, over-the-top mix of instruments and musical styles comes out sounding like so much retro noise pollution — although, to be fair, at the time it was composed, much of what we now consider “classical music” had a similarly confrontational sound. Rather than studying what works in other musicals (specifically in the transition from spoken dialogue to song-and-dance), Dumont does his own thing, cuing songs out of thin air and recording the vocals live, instead of lip-syncing them later. The music comes on at full blast, with no visual device or lead-in to prepare the audience, forcing awkward chuckles when what we ought to feel is rapture.

The choreography feels similarly caught in the middle ground between avant-garde and amateur, as Prudhomme and her co-stars (including twins Aline and Elise Charles, who share the role of nun Madame Gervaise) alternate between girlish twirling, mosh-pit thrashing and synchronized cheerleading. Of all these moves, Joan’s head-banging is the most interesting — hilariously incongruous at first, and yet, through repetition, it assumes an air of reverence, like that of self-flagellation as Joan supplicates herself before God, rather than punk defiance (although it takes the older actress, Voisin, to convey this important nuance).

If only the music and lyrics were more memorable, then “Jeannette” might have delivered on its potential. But Dumont has a stiff, fixed-camera style  that deprives the story of its transcendence (even as it suggests a playful riff on Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew,” Jarman’s “Sebastiane” and other auteur-driven religious retellings). The director has half-protected himself from criticism by relying on Péguy’s text, though his play was meant to be performed in this manner. For a more passionate take on Joan’s life, flames and all, there’s always David Byrne’s musical, now playing Off Broadway.

Film Review: 'Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Director's Fortnight), May 19, 2017. Running time: 106 MIN. (Original title: “Jeannette l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc”)

Production: (France) A Taos Films, Arte France co-production, with Pictanovo and the support of Région Hauts de France. (International sales: Luxbox Films.) Producers: Jean Bréhat, Rachid Bouchared, Muriel Merlin.

Crew: Director, writer: Bruno Dumont, based on novels by Charles Péguy. Camera (color): Guillaume Deffontaines. Editors: Dumont, Basile Belkhiri. Music: IGORRR.

With: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jeanne Voisin, Luicle Gauthier, Victoria Fefebvre, Aline Charles, Elise Charles, Nicolas Leclaire, Gery De Poorter, Regine Delalin, Anaïs Rivière.

More Film

  • Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as

    Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as CEO of VFX Firm Foundry

    Jody Madden has been upped to CEO at U.K.-based VFX outfit Foundry. She steps up having been chief product officer and replaces Craig Rodgerson, who joined the company in late 2017. Foundry was bought by U.S. tech firm Roper Technologies earlier this year in a £410 million ($509 million) deal. The London-based business provides software [...]

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Leaders Warn Members About Contact With Fired Agents

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are warning members about being contacted by their former agents — asserting that such efforts are an attempt to undermine the WGA and its members. The missive, sent Tuesday from the WGA negotiating committee, came with the guild in a bitter three-month standoff with talent agents that appears [...]

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content