Bruno Dumont follows his oddball 2016 Cannes competition entry Slack Bay with the bold and more divisive rock opera Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. And as with Slack Bay and 2014’s Li’l Quinquin, Jeannette’s provocations—sacred subject matter paired with pounding death-metal bass drums—add to its sense of humor. A sample scene: a sheep bleating off screen while a hymnal is sung into the camera. Even the frequently out-of-tune singing and chintzy synthesizer soundtrack add to a sense of levity and play, a tone Dumont’s never pulled off as comfortably as he does here.
Set in a small swath of 15th-century countryside, the film is a highly fictionalized account of Joan of Arc’s spiritual and nationalist awakening at the height of the Hundred Years’ War. The shepherdess and future martyr struggles with her calling through song, first as a precocious eight-year-old (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) and then as an emboldened teenager (Jeanne Voisin), ready to unite France if she can sneak her mission past her parents.
The flexibility of French director Bruno Dumont’s spiritualism makes the film compelling.
The latter section is stronger than the former in part because Voisin can carry a tune, while Prudhomme struggles with the several back-to-back numbers she performs. (Nonetheless, Prudhomme’s impassioned dialogue scenes opposite another child co-star crackle with ideas and energy.) There’s also a certain tedium inherent with a film that’s largely about the act of indecision—and because Jeannette’s experimental staging utilizes only a handful of sets, suggesting a high school musical. This, though, is a joke that the film proves in on with title cards like “Several days later, morning, in the same place.”
But when Jeannette really works, it charms and fascinates. Dumont reaches back through two decades of a filmography consumed by Bressonian inquiries of faith—and subversive send-ups of the same—and applies what he’s learned through largely absolute fictions to a story integral to his country’s character, finding the same dissonances he always has. The filmmaker’s most crucial tool this time is the music, which transforms devotional songs into head-banging nü-metal, with klezmer and European electronic accents. This is the same conflation of the religious and the heretical that Dumont has always drawn on, but it’s given a new expression here—and at the core of the film is his usual sincere regard for crises of conscience.
This all leaves Jeannette feeling like a more acclimated addition to Dumont’s filmography than the loony, mean-spirited Slack Bay, even maybe than the four-hour made-for-television mystery Li’l Quinquin. As an exploration of Joan of Arc in cinema narrative, the film isn’t as rich and substantial as Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc or Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, but Dumont’s more flexible sense of spiritualism makes it nonetheless compelling.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.