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New 'Joan Of Arc' Film A Bit Crazy, But Not Foolish


For a good 45 minutes, Joan of Arc looks like it was put together by Monty Python. It’s so stiff and awkward, you figure it’s got to be intentional parody of the many other films about the 15th century St. Joan.

Director Bruno Dumont shot much of the film in the dunes on the Atlantic coast of Normandy, the part of France the Allies invaded on D-Day 1944. Actors trudge up the sand hills to speak in front of the camera, as if they’re in a middle school historical pageant. Just about all of them are amateurs who don’t know how to stand and participate in a scene, and they look like they’re just waiting to get out of this bizarre movie and back to their homes and jobs. Joan played by 11-year old Lise Leplat Prudhomme has to stand in place for minutes at a time while songs tell the story of what she’s got coming – and no 11-year old can do that without shifting and twitching.

The film doesn’t show the battles Joan led against the English invaders. Instead, about 20 horsemen on each side ride in formal choreographed patterns like the Westernaires at the Stock Show in Denver. And the cleric who both begins and ends Joan’s trial, talks like he has a mouth full of taffy. The movie’s not inept, so it’s got to be a joke – but how it adds up is elusive.

And then it all turns serious and stunningly beautiful. Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy took place in a chapel in the city of Rouen, but the movie is filmed in the magnificent Gothic cathedral in Amiens. A cleric walks the length of the nave, the long, wide central aisle. It’s been cleared of seats and the floor looks polished – and you feel the immense power, and the beauty, of the church. The institution as well as this overwhelming building.

Two Church jurors talk with parallel lines of towering columns behind them. And when the film then looks up into the transcendent heights of the cathedral, the sight feels ineffable, and you might wonder just what was all the nonsense that led up to this.

It turns into a different movie. Joan’s a child. Eleven-year old actress, Lise Leplat Prudhomme is just a speck on the floor of the cathedral that for the moment could be the entire universe. But in that awesome setting, she’s got incredible screen presence and Joan spits back defiant replies to the old church men who believe that harsh questions and a good dose of torture will bring this child to heel.

The famous film about Joan is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Joan rolls her face in passive agony throughout the movie, while her poetic innocence serves as an answer to her oppressors. Lise Leplat Prudhomme’s Joan will not go silently into eventual sainthood. Her ferocious verbal power erupts like a boxer’s jabs to the faces of the clerics whose questions are designed to trick her into confessing heresy.

But the trial sequences are radiant exceptions outside the uncomfortable absurdities in the rest of the film. Director Dumont has some notion of grounding this story of a saint in the careless realities of daily life. Before the trial one jaded juror complains that typical heresy trials are quick – and the sinner is packed off to hell – but  this one’s a big mess. After the trial, the head torturer and his apprentice argue about having the equipment in good working order. Who knew torturers had apprentices? And the picture lurches right back into Monty Python territory.

Yet Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc manages to hold on to both its craziness and its transcendence – which may be the point.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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