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There’s no shortage of films about Joan of Arc, the French peasant burned at the stake for heresy in the 15th century and later sainted and enshrined as one of the major icons of French history. Cinematic depictions of the intrepid Maid of Orléans go as far back as the silent era, with Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1918), and continue with films by such auteurs as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, and, most recently, Bruno Dumont. Playing the heroine, like playing Hamlet, can be both a test and a career touchstone. A post-Casablanca Ingrid Bergman assumed the mantle in Victor Fleming’s version and, fresh from The Fifth Element, Milla Jovovich assumed it in Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Joan the Maid: The Battles and Joan the Maid: The Prisons, the two-part film from 1994 by prominent French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, featuring Sandrine Bonnaire in the title role, stands out in its singular vision. An expansive biopic, it focuses on Joan the human first — and Joan the myth, saint, and warrior second.
Running nearly six hours combined (The Battles is 160 minutes long, The Prisons is 176), Joan the Maid allows for a detailed historical retelling that begins in Part I, as Joan seeks escorts to take her to the deposed Dauphin’s castle in Chinon, and ends in Part II, with a howling Joan consumed by a pyre’s flames. Black intertitles are used liberally to cleave the action with dates and locations, lending the narrative the appearance of a precisely documented historical text. Although the film is clearly not a documentary, testimonies by peripheral characters describing unseen events create a sense of blinkered, collective memory, perhaps a nod to the imperfection of myth-making and history-writing. Rivette, known for his lengthy runtimes (consider his 12-hour-plus 1971 feature, Out 1), seeks out a sense of familiarity that’s grounded in time for his interpretation of Joan’s story — a contrast to many portrayals that maximize her other-worldliness and her spiritual and emotional fervor, as if to match the scope of her cultural significance.
The Battles culminates in the successful siege of Orléans. However, in spite of the title, the sword-and-shield battles are less important than the conflicts created by language, specifically the tension engendered by Joan’s rhetoric. Her mandate to lead the fight against the English and install the Dauphin as the rightful King of France was based on mystical visions. With this in mind, Rivette brings the miracle of Joan of Arc down to earth; he finds her ability to inspire devotion in her sheer magnetism and the lucid confidence of her speech.
Slim but sturdy in physique, firmly square-jawed, with large eyes, both fierce and doleful, Bonnaire’s portrayal of Joan is poised and powerful, without coming across as unnatural or austere. In the face of dogged skepticism, which Rivette presents as a constant challenge, even at the height of Joan’s influence, it is her mental clarity and her simple expressions of faith in herself and her mission that impress. The qualities that elevate Bonnaire’s illiterate, peasant girl to the role of unexpected leader are not overwrought, and Rivette is keen to show the young woman realistically: she might be on the path to sainthood, but she’s not immune to experiences of the body and considerations of class and gender. Struck by an arrow, Joan weeps. Among her loyal companions, she cracks jokes and indulges in smart repartee. While strict and devout, her sexuality is still a presence. The real Joan was barely 19 when she died. While Bonnaire, nearing 30 at the time, was too old to play a teenager, her maturity saves the film from veering into icky territory when it addresses what it might have been like for her hormone-riddled soldiers to sleep beside her at night.
Aesthetically, Rivette opts for a picturesque rigidity that recalls devotional art of the Middle Ages in his construction of mise en scène. By flattening the imagery, he draws attention to the central characters’ movements and expressions — for example, the stilted onlookers in extravagant dress when Joan first approaches the Dauphin in hollowed-out chambers, or the Dauphin’s funereal coronation sequence. From the sprawling landscapes of The Battles, The Prisons narrows the stage into halls, bedrooms, and cellars as Rivette transitions into the political realm of dukes and priests, stately men who resent that Joan has inserted herself into a masculine position of power within a patriarchal system. Strikingly, Rivette chooses to skip over the famed trial once she’s imprisoned, opting instead to demonstrate how her pariah status encourages the men around her to mistreat and degrade her as someone who refuses to fit within their definition of a woman.
At such an extended runtime, Joan the Maid is a film that unites pain and pleasure in its demand for sustained attention. The Quad Cinema premiered the new 4k restoration on August 2, giving cinephiles the opportunity to experience Rivette’s late-career masterwork in all its arduous, but fully transportive glory. Should you be interested in a more challenging shape to the normally mundane historical biopic, Joan the Maid is not to be missed.
Joan the Maid is currently screening at the Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, Manhattan).