Bruno Dumont’s deliberately paced Joan of Arc, a follow-up to 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, invests itself in the people. While the story, adapted from Charles Peguy’s play of the same title, mainly concerns Joan and her struggle to win 15th century France back from encroaching English invaders, it spends a great deal of time with minor characters: guards, priests, locksmiths, soldiers, messengers, torturers. It’s a strategy—recalling Shakespeare, Bruegel and Varda—that feels classic, even though it also brings its share of frustrations, like density of expression (so many scarred faces) and distraction from narrative pleasure.

Its most important contribution, however, is a recasting of the Joan of Arc chronicles as utterly mystifying, with no clear lesson or overwhelming theme. This stands in stark contrast to Dreyer’s iconic The Passion of Joan of Arc (impossible not to mention when reviewing any work of jeanne d’art), which declares that patriarchal systems will reject the singularity of spiritual experience with all of their might to ensure that elites maintain their lofty position. In that film, there was no doubting the cruelty of the Church or Joan’s closeness to God, augmented by her beatific suffering.

This Joan of Arc, on the other hand, acknowledges the stupidity and arrogance of the Church in an absurdist, rather than melodramatic, mode. While its first half takes place, like Jeannette, among sand dunes and pastures, the second is set almost entirely in the elaborately designed spaces of a royal chapel, where a choirful of holy dudes questions Joan for hours to determine if she is indeed a heretic. These scenes feature a chuckle-inducing array of ridiculous posturing and vapid excuse-making, while also highlighting small acts of resistance and personality clashes. In other words, the priests are included in the people, regardless of their roles as enforcers of an unflinching system of thought.

Additionally, Dumont’s Jeanne, played with steely-eyed vivacity by ten year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme, has only a tenuous connection to God and to matters of the spirit. During her trial, she reiterates that the voices she hears are nobody’s business but her own, a decision that prevents both viewers and assessors from comprehending the nature of her inspiration. We often see her looking towards the heavens, where the camera gazes as well, but the film never clarifies if there’s anything there beyond eye-numbing brightness and soft cloud.

Anything, that is, beyond song, which appears in a handful of key scenes that emphasize Joan’s inner longings and moral conflicts. The attractive raspiness of the voice that sings them, intoning French phrases over Rone-like synthesizer melodies, suggests that it might belong to some older version of Joan or her aging spirit, thick with the anguish and doubt the lyrics express. We later find out that the voice belongs to the character of holy man Guillaume Evrard (played by aging French pop star Christophe, also on songwriting and composing duty), who stands to perform a gloriously terrifying number about hell and agony in the middle of Joan’s trials. This disclosure produces a litany of fascinating questions regarding Joan’s auditory hallucinations. Do Evrard’s hell-bent lyrics distance him from the singing voice Joan hears? Or does the song use hell as a metaphor, like Joan would, to highlight pervasive human suffering on Earth?

The use of music does clarify one thing: the fullness of song is revelation, available to and appreciated by a select few. When Evrard sings, the other priests look on in shock and confusion, and no one but Joan knows about the tunes prancing through her brain. Although this gesture happily shifts the Joan of Arc tale away from transcendence in suffering to transcendence in beauty, there’s also an onanic element to this portrayal, with Dumont presenting the hallucinatory beauty of his art as something recognizable to only a handful of elitist cine-nerds.

Clearly, this clashes with the film’s apparent investment in the people and interest in the popular mythos of French history. It’s possible, in fact, that Dumont’s gaze towards their hardships and simple pleasures is a pitying one. “I’d prefer her to burn,” one of the soldiers guarding Joan’s cell casually states, “but you can’t have it all.” There’s a laughable dependence upon meaningless commonplace phrases in this line, which links to the dependence of the movie’s priests upon the same containable notions of God, Scripture and revelation.

The idea, it seems, is to provide people with an image of themselves at their simplest, as one would with a puppet show or a parable, in order to provoke laughter and perhaps stimulate philosophical transformation. It’s important to consider Joan of Arc within its director’s extended project of relying on the performances of untrained actors, a ploy he uses in this context, too (with the exception of Christophe as Evrard and Fabrice Luchini as a deliciously dismissive Charles VII). This is a tactic that works well in the context of his whodunit/sci-fi television work, but it’s less engaging here and, frankly, more dubious. Both in associating himself with a misunderstood saint and in shrugging off most contemporary popular art forms, Dumont reveals his distance from the very people who are the subjects of his films.

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