Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is a cloudless film in which very little happens. Jeannette breaks into song and dances on the hills of Donrémy. She declares with urgency that France must defeat the English. She has visions of portly saints floating below a tree. Later, as a teen, she enlists her uncle to take her to the battlefield.
But there are ways in which the tedium of director Bruno Dumont’s latest (based on a 1910 play by Charles Péguy) is key to its appeal. Little Jeannette may be a shoddy shepherdess who prefers aimless strolls along the banks of the Meuse to tending listless livestock, but her plein air flânerie is a perfect foil to the film’s bursts of campy rapture. Watch her wade through a stream, verses flowing from a mouth free of orthodontic intervention. Hear her thin soprano and the splash of her feet playing against the soothing whoosh of the morning breeze. “Oh God, if only we could see / the advent of your reign,” she sings, gaze raised to the sky. “If only we could see / the sunrise … .” Such longing escalates into existential refrain — “But there is nothing, / there is never anything” — till the girl gets downright doleful: “Years have passed, so many years / that I can no longer count them. / Centuries of years have passed, / fourteen centuries of Christianity … .”
Here, the eight-year-old future saint (played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme, a non-professional actor like the rest of the cast) is referring not only to the birth of Christ, but to the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, its carnage far off from her small stone home but nonetheless consuming. After about seven minutes of offbeat Gregorian chants, a wave of drums and guitar chords suddenly — and hilariously — engulfs the soundtrack, prompting the child to spin and pound her dirty soles into the ground. Throughout the film, such revelations present themselves less through coherent choreography than electro-pop theatrics — androgynous nuns head-banging, St. Michael making jazz hands. It’s fun, absurd, and a bit burlesque — ecstasy minus the agony of typical martyr narratives.
Since canonization in 1920, Joan, one of France’s patron saints, has been played by some of film’s greatest icons (Maria Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman) as well as trendy Hollywood starlets (Milla Jovovich, Leelee Sobieski), but in each iteration it’s the spectacle of her martyrdom that dominates the story, not the humble nature of her origins. Dumont delights in the reverse approach. Jeannette is a gloriously shameless instance of art house eccentricity. Sans celebs, excessive scenery, or striking dancing talent, the film reads like a Judson School rejoinder to the Christian rock opera, a picturesque fable flying in the face of the sublime.
The film is also, in many ways, a trial of viewers’ attention spans. Once 16-year-old Jeanne (played by Jeanne Voisin) works up the nerve to flee her sheep, her friends, and laconic domus, one expects an intense adieu. Instead, Dumont cuts to an outdoor shot “before the end of the following winter,” with Jeanne calmly spinning wool and still waiting for time to head to the front. “We can leave in peace,” she tells her uncle (Gery De Poorter), a bumbling lad who seems more like a brother. “Like eight months ago?” he gibes. “This time for good,” she explains, her eyes never straying from her menial task.
Is Jeanne truly led by visions, or is she a bored-out-of-her-mind wunderkind trapped in the middle of nowhere? An exercise in patience, Jeannette suggests that it doesn’t matter. “If the soldiers refuse, I’ll gather the people,” she resolves, her horse chewing oats nearby. “And if they refuse, I’ll go alone.” Her decision segues into one last fevered dance, this time less loony than tragic. Denying us any whiff of the violence to come, Dumont celebrates the innocence — and banality — of a young saint’s life. We know what comes next for this girl, after all, and we ask if it is worth it.