Starring Jeanne Voisin. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Quick: name another female historical figure from Christian Europe before 1500. I mean, one we still talk about. Personally, I’d go with Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century composer who codified a lot of what later became classical music. But how many movies and TV shows have been made about her versus tales of Jeanne d’Arc, the teenage warrior who died a fiery martyr’s death? (One or two, it seems, as opposed to the 63 I got with “Joan of Arc” in the title.)
Still, if you had to explain her persistent allure, what would it be? That religious epiphanies drove her to wield a sword against other Christians on behalf of an uncaring aristocracy, and she was betrayed and burned by fellow Catholics? This is useful to us how, exactly—I mean, as opposed to knowing what scales to practise on a recorder? Some might say she remains the embodiment of sexualized violence—that is, a young woman momentarily lionized for her aggressive agency, then tortured to death before she can get very far.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc doesn’t trouble itself with that grotesque denouement, but begins in 1425, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The future fighter’s famous visions have been moved from her father’s garden to a scrubby beach in northern France, where 13-year-old Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) spies future saints Catherine and Marguerite (played by twins Aline and Elise Charles) levitating in the trees above a shallow creek.
She vows to Brexit the overbearing occupiers. And singing about it just might help. That’s the thinking of writer-director Bruno Dumont, who specializes in creating odd musicals about unlikely subjects, using nonprofessional casts. Here, he’s riffing on dialogue from a century-old play by Charles Peguy, with the words set to almost alarmingly eclectic music by someone called Igorrr. The dominance of electronic drums and doom-metal power chords quickly becomes overbearing, though, and viewers are left to wonder how the dirgelike melodies and oddball choreography (is there really a nod to The Exorcist?) improve the story.
Halfway into the somewhat punishing 100-minute film, the lead role is taken over by the older Jeanne Voisin, who has some natural screen presence and a much stronger singing voice. The music is most effective when she sings a cappella with her best pal (Victoria Lefebvre), and they argue about the rather small ethical and religious differences between the English and the French, relying entirely on hearsay. But they soon resort to head-banging antics as well. There are some eye-popping images, to be sure, but too bad Dumont didn’t go to Bingen for the music.