Carl Theodor Dreyer practically invented the cinematic art of crying with his Maria Falconetti-starring 1928 study The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ninety years later, French director Bruno Dumont is paving the way for heavy-metal hair whipping with his own take on the saint’s story, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. It’s telling that even the title sets itself apart from previous Joan of Arc films; Dumont won’t show us Joan at trial, or even at the stake, that immolation that has fascinated filmmakers since Georges Melies’ Jeanne d’Arc in 1899. Instead, we first see Joan as a child (played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme) and then in the second half as an adolescent (played by Jeanne Voisin) as she prays, tends flock and prepares for battle. But what really sets it apart is that nearly the entire film is sung and set to the caterwauling guitars of French experimental musician Igorrr. Yes, this is a heavy metal Joan of Arc musical.
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The singing is not particularly good; in fact, it’s probably fair to say that it’s actively bad (this is no The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which also is sung in its entirety, but with clear melodies delivered via the ethereal falsetto of Catherine Deneuve). Jeannette features choreography by Philippe Decoufle and Clemence Galliard, but even the dancing, which mainly consists of the cast swaying and shaking and whipping their hair, is decidedly amateur; this style adds a surreal, humorous quality to Dumont’s retelling, which is otherwise downright pious. There’s no hint of irony in this film (I don’t think it would work if there were); in fact, Jeannette succeeds in its earnestness, adapting its words from Charles Peguy’s works, but countering it with the pure, joyous silliness of its presentation.
Without the heavy metal aspect, Jeannette would have been an incredibly idle film, as it mostly takes place on a hillside, usually with the young heroine in solitude, with the exception of twin nuns who offer her their two cents (four cents?), and her best friend who, at one point, Exorcist-walks upside-down across the field. Later, three levitating saints arrive to fire up Jeannette with devotional fervor. The film’s packed dialogue, along with its unabashed modernity despite its loyal-to-its-period setting, is reminiscent of Othon by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, while its musical-religious storytelling suggest that duo’s Moses and Aaron.
In the final act, as Jeannette, now called Jeanne, makes her way to battle to save her country from English occupation, we’re reminded of the tragic fate that awaits her, recounted by so many directors before Dumont. But Dumont doesn’t compromise his absurd vision, even until at the very end, when we meet Jeanne’s goofy uncle (Nicolas Leclaire), essentially a white rapper who dabs in the face of war and stumbles off horses — a man who’s supposed to aid Jeanne on her mission. He’s a highlight.
If you’ve seen Dumont’s recent burst of films (2014’s Li’l Quinquin, last year’s Slack Bay), you’ve probably caught on to the fact that there’s a streak of madman in his genius. Jeannette is admittedly not for everyone — in fact, you may hate it — but it’s a bold creation that deserves to be taken a chance on. Dumont almost set himself up for failure for tackling this subject after the likes of Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson and Otto Preminger, but his version manages to stick out like a sore thumb — in the best possible way.