Some folks (like me!) have little love for musicals. If Jeannette: L’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc doesn’t change any hearts (like mine! for example), it does offer itself as a dizzying exception to the rule.
In Jeannette (2017), Bruno Dumont (Ma Loute, Hors Satan) has cathedralized the wet-sky setting of France’s Côte d’Opale with a metal musical, colliding the sacred and the burlesque. Knotting choreography from Philippe Decouflé and music from Gautier Serre (aka Igorrr), Dumont realizes his singularly effective avant-gardism in an imagined history of Joan of Arc’s childhood. With a screenplay adapted from Charles Péguy’s Jeanne d’Arc (1897) and Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc (1910), the film unearths and exacts a version of Joan which had before gone without performance history to throw a wash of weird light on her towering myth.
Being slightly more invested in metal music and its cultural disenfranchisement than the average owl, I’m perpetually rolling my eyes at descriptions of Jeannette’s score. That said, Serre’s compositions defy neat categorization, blending baroque patterning, hyper-produced death and black metal instrumentation and hardcore electronics into a unified mode. The film opens with the young Jeannette singing a long, mournful prayer to God à capella. Once Serre’s score sounds out, instrument and voice all in one pyre– it appears that Dumont had the actors arrange their own melodies on the spot – the mass of the dialogue becomes a kind of operatic extreme metal. The words themselves, Péguy’s words, ride on all this tonality to debate and articulate human misery through themes of Pascalian theology, socialism, nationalism and war. The final thing is decidedly medievalish in character.
And yet, however classically appalling it may be for a mass audience to see a child sing metallic hymns and throw horns, the inclusion of metal in this story of Joan isn’t really heterodox. As it is, Joan of Arc has already been included in metal several times over. As the music becomes the context of speech and motion, the emotional and aesthetic commonalities of these things are rather quickly realized.
Where Dumont etches his style in his film and, time will tell if not, on the legend of Joan is in the configuration of bodies. The truly mystifying thing of Jeannette is how its people dance.
A wavy mirror, dance in the film parallels song and dialogue and, more often than not, apes the scene, twisting all the gibbous heaviness into a paradoxically comedic masque. The treatment of the body is often simple, minor awkward positions and gestures which keep the joke in the air until a rarefied punchline can bubble up, without reason and without reaction (a fact which stretches the eternal diegetic question of musical cinema).
When the film skips to Jeannette’s teen era, we see her standing among her sheep, and we see her best friend, Hauviette, cross the screen in an extreme crabwalk, her elbows towards her legs, her head towards the ground. In the same stupefying vain, Jeanne’s uncle Durand can be seen at moments dabbing rapidly in the unfocused background. Perhaps Jeannette’s most important dance is that which grips the wire of the score and its scourging medievalishness, braiding sound and movement into an obvious gravity: headbanging, which in this movie is without fail entirely off-tempo.
Decouflé’s minimal pop choreography enacts Dumont’s conception of the burlesque, the kinetic joke which alienates the audience from the thing and demands a fresh tally of who Joan was, what she should mean. If one thing is true about the signification of Dumont’s production at this particular moment, it’s that Jeannette, by dint of its arch idiosyncrasy, is useless to the traditional political propagandizing of Joan of Arc in France; it’s too funny, too lo-fi to own. Translating Péguy’s arcane manuscripts through the voice-changer of a modern cinematic surrealism, Dumont has thrown up a siegeless wall in the line of Johannic myth.
I attended Jeannette’s Chicago premiere and so had the pleasure of witnessing room reactions: the laughter whenever the dialogue was interrupted by a human voice in the soundtrack bleating “bahhh” for Jeannette’s sheep, the frenetic arguments about meaning once the lights came up, the slight bobbing of a white-haired head in front of me, matched to the invisible groove of blast beats. But my choice favorite came at minute-107 of 108 when the stranger to my left leaned towards my ear and asked, “I’m fine with the heavy metal stuff, but is this whole thing going to be in French?” His eyebrows wriggled away, as if to say he was satisfied with his joke.
Jeannette is not a film to cry over. It’s an attempt, at times overwrought, at the reconstitution of Joan’s primary mystery, as well as the continuation of Dumont’s revolt against normalcy in art. By its will to be an enigma, it’s a work that yanks the wrinkles of the face up to a point of vertigo, leaving us to marvel, guffaw and smile swollen smiles at the spectacle.