One of the funniest scenes in Li’l Quinquin, the first entry in what now appears to be a new phase of deranged genre pastiche for Bruno Dumont, bears witness to a town talent show in rural France. A young girl takes the stage and gives a charmingly amateurish performance of an original pop song, which Dumont shoots in its entirety from a dead-on perspective. In the context of the film, a sluggishly slapstick whodunit that still possesses a core of seriousness and dramatic propulsion, the scene’s duration and visual directness feels unmistakably like a play for laughs, a sentiment reinforced by the song’s pricelessly timed reprise at two later occasions.
In Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, the pitchy singing of young girls within static tableaux is such a constant that it’s hard to gauge Dumont’s intent: humor, awe at the sheer gusto of it at all, or a genuine theatrical expression of an inner world. Typical of the filmmaker’s slippery, multifaceted cinema, there’s room for all three responses here, as the adolescent version of France’s supreme religious icon (initially played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme, then by Jeanne Voisin when the character ages three years) bounds across the screen belting out verses from longwinded Charles Péguy poetry to an equally longwinded prog-metal score by French musician Igorrr. The year is 1425, and Jeannette is experiencing an awakening of spiritual and political conscience as British forces ravage her nation’s people miles away in the heart of the Kingdom of France. Prudhomme, with her crooked teeth and unkempt long hair blowing in the salty winds of Dumont’s beloved northern France, betrays a guilelessness that very nearly passes for visionary clairvoyance, at least when the actress isn’t eyeing the ground to find her marks.
Set largely on a single patch of shrubby dune alongside the River Meuse where Jeannette minds her cattle, the film is composed of long, linear dialogue sequences, realized as musical numbers that flow from one to the next, with act breaks marked by jokey titles that call attention to the unchanging environment: “Several days later, in the same place,” for instance. The narrative is built around the visitors who Jeannette receives, from a childlike friend, Hauviette (initially played by Lucile Gauthier, and latter by Victoria Lefebvre), to a cautioning nun, Madame Gervaise, who inexplicably and delightfully appears here as a bifurcated presence, with twins Aline and Elise Charles singing in tandem as two halves of the same person.
Jeanette uses both companions as sounding boards for her grievances: How can one reconcile spiritualism with nationalist fervor, and what good is piety if it’s practiced in isolation from the horrors of the larger world? And she solicits their assistance in her cause, to which they preach non-intervention no matter how much cartwheeling, head-banging, diaphragm-flexing fury the young radical summons up. Not until Jeannette’s uncle, Durand (Nicolas Leclaire), enters the story does she find an ally, and the final act details the steps they take to escape to the city on the family horse.
Jeannette escalates in hilarity in this final passage, finally departing from its remote location to visit its heroine’s lurid domestic life. Though the narrative’s macro focus on a crisis of Christian faith and its consequence of extreme action places the film squarely in Dumont’s thematic wheelhouse, it’s not until this narrative diversion that Jeannette genuinely feels like a product of the director’s staging. In a nightmarish snapshot of quotidian labor at the rustic d’Arc homestead, we witness the peculiar antics of Jeannette’s family. Durand’s erratic physicality, which encompasses a variety of unorthodox hip-hop-influenced gestures that follow along with the beat of the continuous musical accompaniment (Leclaire is an aspiring rapper, so perhaps he’s auditioning his moves), is contrasted with that of Jeannette’s parents, who appear caught in exaggerated domestic routines. In one Monty Pythonesque tableau, mother Isabeau (Régine Delalin) picks at the feathers of her chicken like a possessed maniac while Durand ecstatically cuts a rug in the background. Slack Bay staged a similar conflict between the integrity of youth and the neuroses and repressions of the adult world, but here that tension is pushed even further beyond credibility by the excesses of the ensemble.
Such peculiarities in performance are perhaps symptomatic of a director who casts nonprofessionals as a rule, and his films are indeed charged by the dissonances between his precisely calibrated mise-en-scène and the less stable ground of his actors. But in Jeannette, a sense of the raw and inexpert has never been more pronounced, both in front of and behind the camera. Throughout, light often shifts from overcast to hard sunshine from cut to cut. Occasional punctuating crane shots that elevate above the action lack the usual smooth polish of similar shots in films like Hors Satan and Li’l Quinquin. Sheep bleat loudly in the middle of takes, competing with the frequently off-key live singing, which Dumont subjects to uncut coverage.
The apparent model for such scenes is the stilted historical reenactments of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who similarly employed folksy non-actors, direct sound, and circumscribed outdoor locations throughout their work, but Dumont’s approach is distinguished by the bonkers choreography and his always phenomenal eye for composition and color. With its warm skin tones, rugged primary-colored costuming, and exacting delineations of sand, grass, and sky, Jeannette is at least never less than lovely.
For all its natural beauty and genuine sense of surprise, however, this is a film handicapped by Igorrr’s uniquely terrible music, a near-constant formless riffing that alternately suggests reheated Evanescence tracks, Raffi sing-alongs, and the electronic tinkerings of a GarageBand apprentice. Where the silences in between words in Dumont’s cinema used to be filled with spacious field sounds and feelings of unspoken dread, now they’re stuffed with skittering breakbeats and doomy double-bass-pedal hammering. It’s true that the disorientation produced in the collision of Igorrr’s frenetic style-mashing and Dumont’s unadorned long-take aesthetic ensures that the film feels remarkably distinct from prior cinematic adaptations of Joan of Arc’s life, but it’s also hard not to wonder how this particular story might have played without the farfetched musical conceit grafted atop it. As it stands, Jeannette is admirable in its defiance of recognizable modes and its naked showcase of Dumont’s exploding imagination, but it’s a tedious novelty indeed.