To many artists, from Morrissey to Victor Fleming, Joan of Arc has proved a rich canvas to reflect upon female suffrage. The aim, whether a song or film, is to interpolate the viewer into her story against the oppressive forces of the French and English monarchy during medieval times.
Five hundred years after her death, her position as a saint is still maintained and was created to underline Catholicism’s importance in creating central European history. Joan, compelled by visions of God, led the French charge against invading English forces and was later captured and put on trial for heresy. In the case of Bruno Dumont, his adaptation of Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, as written in 1910, has stemmed over two films. The first feature, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, imbued the formative years of Joan with a postmodern musical twist.
His follow up, Joan of Arc, picks up directly after Joan’s famous influence at the Siege of Orléans, which proved monumental in shifting French morale in the Hundred Years War. Here, Dumont retains the casting of Lise Leplat Prudhomme in the titular role again, occurring only because of a clash in the shooting schedule of the older Jeanne, actress Jeanne Voisin in Jeannette. Strangely in doing so, the decision foregrounds the innocence inherent in the girl’s struggle against the overbearing patriarchal system, which is the driving force in her death.
Going against the grain of displaying a mass of extras dressed in armour preparing for battle, Dumont stages the initial action in sparse landscapes away from the battlefield. The characters, ranging from French noble lords to Catholic priests, are framed from afar in medium longshots. Within the frame, these figures appear tiny pieces on a gigantic chessboard. Further, this style is similarly adopted later in the film in the grand spaces of cathedrals and chapels in Normandy. Literally in the mise-en-scene, the cathedral floors are adorned with black and white patterns, only emphasizing the character’s positions as pawns in the great old game of political, religious, and sovereign power.
The unobtrusive camera in the initial scenes is further juxtaposed by intense close-ups during the trial of Joan. David Chambille’s camera creates a deeply tense relationship between the girl on trial and the priests who are questioning actions during the war between the English. In particular, the costume design of Alexandra Charles underlines the influence to which these men have. Dressed head to toe in luxurious gowns that appear to shimmer in the light, the velvet reflects their influence on France’s religious system. In one specific moment, the divine right of prophets is used against Joan in an act that purely exploits the system that seeks to crash down upon the young woman.
However, the visual aspects of the film cannot override the sometimes cumbersome dialogue that orientates political scenes of this subject matter. The script proceeds through rudimentary moments that are not helped by the bloated 137-minute runtime. Even though the visuals do carry the film in moments, it’s simply not enough when the moments are drawn out into insignificance. Dumont attempts to counteract these dull moments with French singer Christophe’s score for the film. The work of the singer creates a soundscape that is modern in its arrangement.
From synths to drum beats, the creative decision stems from the musical nature of Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. Nevertheless, the songs composed aim to interpolate the viewer into Joan’s position as they are all written from her perspective. Accompanied by Lise Leplat Prudhomme’s glaring gaze down the barrel of the lens, these force a genuine human look into the position of a sanctified figure. Nevertheless, the singer’s presence feels like a misstep in one decisive scene that completely removes any subtlety to this modern music’s place in this period setting.
Concluding his film as he initially commenced, Dumont shoots Joan of Arc’s final shot with a medium longshot showing the infamous burning of Joan in a wide-angled shot from afar. Specifically, in this one-shot, the film’s perspective on the tale is epitomized. Chiefly in its reclusive style does it both achieve some of its finest and most disappointing moments, specifically in a Bressonian recluse towards human feelings and behaviour.
Joan of Arc is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 19 June.