Give credit where it’s due: Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is visionary, and further proof that Dumont operates on a level his contemporaries aren’t bothered to go towards. After making his name on the festival circuit as an enfant terrible, Dumont changed gears with the hilarious and successful miniseries Li’l Quinquin. He followed that up with the bleak comedy Slack Bay, which saw him zigging when others expected him to zag. Despite recruiting some of French cinema’s biggest names and shooting a gorgeously styled period piece, Slack Bay was a hideous film: its humour ranged from slapstick to juvenile, its professional actors gave unhinged, garish performances, and Dumont once again confronted some of the ugliest aspects of human nature. The film was a massive middle finger to the arthouse audiences and institutions who have praised and dismissed his work in the past, and people either rejected it outright or (like me) embraced its spiteful, absurd nature.
Now, Dumont is back with a film that looks like a series of bad choices. It’s about Joan of Arc, but it covers her early years before she even went on to battle; it’s a musical, but it only uses direct sound; and the music itself is a combination of heavy metal, dubstep, electro, and other anachronistic genres, courtesy of musician Igorrr. It’s easy to think that Dumont’s choices won’t work, but Dumont is aware that his decisions are more unconventional than outright bad. So Dumont does what he wants to do, and Jeannette acts as another middle finger, this time towards our perceptions of what constitutes a musical, a biopic, a period piece, and what constitutes “good” cinema. Those willing to give Jeannette a chance have no choice but to abandon their preconceived notions, and anyone who does will find themselves encountering one of the most entertaining experiences of the year.
Split into two parts, Jeannette starts with the 8-year-old Joan (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) in 1425, wandering around a field with a friend expressing dismay at the brutality of the English towards the French. She’s having a crisis of faith, dancing and singing her issues out before meeting with the nun Gervaise (Aline & Elise Charles), who appears as twins and tries to convince Joan to not lose hope in God. This sequence, an elaborate song and dance that runs well over ten minutes long, is a marvel to behold. Igorrr’s score bounces from one style to another, the two Gervaises ping pong lines of dialogue and song between each other while performing elaborate choreography, and it all culminates with a headbanging session that would be considered sacreligious if it weren’t so baffling and funny.
The film doesn’t reach the high of the Gervaise sequence again, but it remains a riotous act of rebellion throughout. At a certain point the film moves forward four years, and the now adolescent Joan (Jeanne Voisin) finally makes good on her promise to leave home and save her country, thanks to the help of her rapping, dabbing uncle (don’t worry, just go with it). For Dumont, a figure like Joan of Arc is a perfect target for his new style of confrontation. By taking an established historical figure—one that’s been adapted into cinematic form plenty of times over the decades—and building an anachronistic musical around her, Dumont exposes the absurdity of our self-imposed standards when it comes to rendering our perception of truth through history. Jeannette is the party the kids throw when their parents are away, a freeing act of defiance against cinematic boundaries that have been established and embedded since its creation. Dumont is a filmmaker learning from the past in order to move forward at his own, singular pace, and where he leads I will follow.