Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid, 1994)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films. In fact, I saw this film during a retrospective of the work of Jacques Rivette, so I have several other reviews of his films from the same time. I’ve picked one that’s (slightly) more widely available than some of the others I saw, such as the 12-hour Out 1.


ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week || Director Jacques Rivette | Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette | Cinematographer William Lubtchansky | Length 280 minutes (in two parts: Les Batailles and Les Prisons) | Starring Sandrine Bonnaire | Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Tuesday 16 May 2006 | Originally posted on 17 May 2006 (with slight amendments) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Bac Films

Over the course of his career, Rivette has more and more adopted a stripped-down visual style. Often there will be empty frames, clear contrasts and frontal lighting, and a smoothly-gliding camera, all offset by very basic black titles and baroque music. This is very much evident here as well, over both parts of this lengthy film (and even this seems to be slightly shortened from its length on the original French release).

Of course, a filmic portrait of Joan of Arc was always going to measured in relation to earlier efforts by Bresson and Dreyer, both of whose films focus on the trial and burning of Joan as a heretic. Rivette’s film also features her final moments, though perhaps unsurprisingly given its illustrious cinematic forebears, it replaces the trial with a titlecard. This kind of elision isn’t unusual in Rivette; what isn’t elided are the long sequences of questioning doubt and loneliness. There are some battle scenes, but so depopulated as to seem absurd, as if the director were just making a gesture towards the existence of people by having more than one or two. This again is a conscious strategy — a stylised presentation of a time far removed from our own, with very different customs and only tentatively grounded in historically verifiable fact — and as such is not entirely inappropriate.

Despite being in her 30s, Sandrine Bonnaire seems like the right choice for Jeanne, and brings something of a monomania to the part, without subsuming it in a haloed divine grace. This is very much a human protagonist confronted by political chicanery and human cynicism.

For a film of over four hours in length, it sustains the dramatic momentum admirably. However, it achieves an odd alienation effect, as if it were not transcendent enough to fit with the cinematic archetype as created by Bresson and Dreyer. It may be hard for the character of Jeanne to escape the forces of history, but it is just as difficult for this film to escape its own cinematic history.

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