You have to hand it to Bruno Dumont, France’s dark prince of dour auteurism: He never makes the same film twice, even when he does, to all intents and purposes, make the same film twice. Two years ago, he offered his own singular contribution to cinema’s well-stocked canon of Joan of Arc dramas: As a rare take on the peasant-turned-saint’s formative years, “Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc” would have stood out even if Dumont hadn’t set it to a heavy-metal song score, perhaps to compensate for the story’s lack of steely battle armor. Memorably bizarre but mostly bludgeoning, it left few but the most dedicated Dumont diehards begging for more — but he was never going to leave the story half-told, even if a sequel would inevitably have to cover far more familiar turf.
Enter the starkly titked “Joan of Arc,” which puts away all manner of childish things — chief among them the head-banging rock music — to austerely see its heroine through the downturn of her military career, her extended trial for heresy and her fiery execution. Though it picks up where “Jeannette” left off, the new film doesn’t exactly play like part two of a bigscreen miniseries. Rather, “Joan of Arc” is its own separate, self-contained film, distinct in its starched storytelling rhythm, husk-dry comic sensibility and sort-of-musical scoring and staging.
A good half-hour longer than its predecessor at 137 minutes, it certainly feels the the heftier and (even) more arduous work of the two: a slog, if you want it put in fewer words, which is not Dumont’s own inclination in a script thick with formal clerical rhetoric. Needless to say, a historical anti-musical that makes “Jeannette” look like “Moulin Rouge!” by comparison is going to win the filmmaker few converts. Patient admirers and distributors will genuflect, but the eminence of Dreyer’s vision, or Bresson’s, is hardly — so to speak — at stake.
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Surprisingly, one youthful element has been retained from “Jeannette”: diminutive leading lady Lise Leplat Prudhomme, despite having passed the baton to an older actress in the previous film’s latter stages. The curious upshot of this casting U-turn on Dumont’s part is that the 10-year-old Prudhomme now plays the Maid of Orléans between the ages of 17 and 19 — some kind of novelty in cinema’s long history of ageing up actors, though it does have the effect of stressing our heroine’s inordinate vulnerability by the time she’s put on trial by a coven of wizened, wheezing church elders. It’s an undeniable stunt that improbably becomes the film’s most honest asset: Imposing by any generational measure, Prudhomme’s fervid, unflinching performance puts some blood and guts into an otherwise stony, hyper-measured exercise.
As in “Jeannette,” Dumont strips production values to the bare minimum, largely eschewing sets for bare beaches and the craning, spectacular architecture of Amiens Cathedral — lending the film, with its variously strident or gurning performances, the quality of a particularly mannered medieval reenactment exercise. Anyone approaching this “Joan of Arc” for rousing battle scenes must be new to Dumont: The film’s exterior opening sequences are taken up with arch discussion of military strategy, beginning in the immediate afterglow of Joan’s triumph against the English in the Battle of Orléans, and wordily detailing the buildup to her intrepid but less successful Compiègne campaign, which saw her captured and imprisoned by the Burgundians. “Tell, don’t show” is very much the name of the game here, down to the moment when Joan breaks the fourth wall and bluntly declares to camera, “I must go into battle alone!”
The closest we get to the war itself, and the film’s most elaborately choreographed setpiece, is an aerial-shot display of horseback soldiers circulating in languid formation to a steady, doleful drumbeat. It’s a scene with a clearer musical-cinema sensibility than any of those built around the film’s morose original song score: this time a staid blend of chanson and new-wave pop by veteran French singer-songwriter Christophe, who performs one of them on screen in an especially glum cameo. (“Amid the crazed screams of eternal suffering/Prayers will be like the silence before the flood of suffering,” runs a choice lyric that won’t be giving Sondheim any sleepless nights.) Others aren’t visibly sung but not-diegetically imposed on scenes, as in one stately, stifling montage of Joan in a series of scowling battle poses — a device that initially seems an apt musical representation of the guiding voices she claims to have in her head, until less specific applications of the same technique rather spoil the effect.
“Joan of Arc’s” second half is preoccupied with the stuffy procedural fits and starts of its heroine’s trial for heresy in Rouen, where the religiously resolute teen weathers a procession of condescending attacks on her faith and character by a gnarled ensemble of elaborately robed clerics — whose collectively peculiar, tic-heavy delivery briefly lends the film the skew-whiff drollness of Dumont’s recent comic exploits “P’tit Quinquin” and “Slack Bay,” minus any actual laughs. “Did the voices tell you to lie and disobey?” they ask. “You will never know that, it concerns only me,” she replies.
Lather, rinse, repeat: This rhetorical stalemate may honor the writings of Catholic poet and essayist Charles Péguy, the chief source of inspiration for Dumont’s script, but it doesn’t make for enthralling drama, least of all when the audience knows precisely where it’s headed. Prudhomme’s earnestly charismatic performance makes us root for Joan in all her pious resilience, while d.p. David Chambille deftly exploits the cathedral’s soaring proportions to belittle her persecutors as much as they do her. Yet it’s hard not to wish they’d simply get on with the grim, unavoidable outcome: Dumont’s eccentric endurance test burns up much of its goodwill by the time the pyre is finally lit.