Wednesday 17 June 2020

The girl with all the gifts: "Joan of Arc"

I remain hopeful we'll see Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, the second part of Bruno Dumont's rather brilliantly eccentric TV series P'tit Quinquin in cinemas or on a streaming platform soon. In the meantime, we have Joan of Arc, this ever more playful filmmaker's take on one of the defining French legends - a tale at which directors as diverse as Carl Dreyer and Luc Besson have felt compelled to take a run. (Joan of Arc is itself Dumont's sequel to 2017's Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, unreleased in the UK; you won't necessarily need to have seen it to get the feel of the new film.) Dumont's take runs over the scrubland and sand dunes that formed the topography of his previous Slack Bay - one prominent feature of the acting: the breathlessness that follows from having to scramble repeatedly over such uneven terrain - and is distinguished by two elements. Firstly, his Jeanne is played by a ten-year-old (Lise Leplat Prudhomme), a casting flourish that gestures towards the warrior queen's innocence and the purity of intent she brought to her vision of the future (a free France), but also towards a relative inexperience in the field. This Jeanne's big problem is getting battle-hardened or otherwise dismissive adults to believe her and fight for her cause; she is very much a Joan of Arc à la Greta Thunberg. Secondly, though these are too few and far between for the film to be claimed as a musical, electropop numbers sporadically punctuate the action, and help to communicate those interior conflicts the film's variably expressive semi- and non-professional actors cannot. Needless to say, it'll take some getting used to; you might hurdle one of these conceptual coups and stand on the other as if it were the pointy end of a rake. What is clear is that Joan of Arc is very much its own thing; once again, Dumont has fashioned a film that marches to the beat of its own drum - and sometimes drum machine.

One reason producers have thrown their weight and money behind the Dumont approach - and he's more prolific now than he ever was in the first years of his career - is that he's been content to work with comparatively limited resources. For his Joan movie, he has at most 30 horse riders at his disposal, a panoply of previously standing cathedrals to shoot in, and he doesn't appear too fussed by the usual period-movie diktats about extras in fancy costumes: when Fabrice Luchini drops by for his one scene as the King, he does so apparently wearing an upturned and upholstered blancmange mould on his head. Occasionally here, Dumont will shape those limited resources into real cinematic poetry: take the early battle scene where, rather than charging, the riders arrange themselves into geometric shapes, as though competing in some demonstration event at the Horse of the Year show. A drone camera hovers over the battlefield, reframing this spectacle as either Jeanne's view (a vision of where she wanted her men to ride, like a whiteboard on the wall of a Premier League dressing room) or God's view (perceiving some grand and quietly beautiful design to the waging of war). At ground level, however, Joan of Arc more often than not proves less certain, even a touch wobbly - and some Dumont diehards will doubtless argue that such wobbliness in itself makes a refreshing change from the polished Downton school.

Nevertheless, it was a risk to hand 135 minutes of archaic historical exposition to semi-professional performers, and I wasn't ever convinced it was one that really repays viewer patience. Leplat Prudhomme makes for a compelling screen presence while still - or, rather, she's convincing as someone with a compelling cause - but even she tends to gabble her lines when prompted, like a fifth grader cast as Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. Dreyer had the godly advantage of working during the silent era: he could cast interesting faces - as Dumont always has done, and does so again here - and not have to worry unduly about the sounds coming out of their mouths. I kept watching, because there are points where the movie gods look down upon Joan of Arc with a kindly eye, and the sparse, back-to-basics approach almost, almost works, almost reveals some new, instructive route through this story. Dumont elicits some droll fun from Joan's torturers, introduced after the manner of the gravedigger in Hamlet, moaning about their humdrum fate in the middle of a Pas-de-Calais nowhere; and the trial scenes can't help but benefit from having the grand majesty of Amiens Cathedral at their service, even if the sheer scale of the backdrop reduces Dumont's interrogators - and not just little Leplat Prudhomme - to the standing of pipsqueaks. They are, alas, mere flashes of inspiration: sporadic visions that don't quite flesh out, either into a directorial battleplan or truly involving cinema.

Joan of Arc will be available to stream via Curzon from Friday.

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