A while ago, asked to name a film set in the Middle Ages with a persuasively medieval spirit, I settled on Eric Rohmer’s charming 1978 oddity Perceval le Gallois. Based on a 12th-century French Arthurian poem, it’s a musical of sorts, with sung narration from onstage minstrels playing medieval tunes, and ending with a startling eight-minute musical Passion play.
I have never seen anything like Rohmer’s Perceval. That includes Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc — improbably enough, another French musical about an innocent young medieval hero, adapted from poetic writings and prominently contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus in song.
Yet Jeannette too offers a medieval vision that is astonishing in its challenge to modern sensibilities, even if the literary source in this case is from around the turn of the 20th century — the writings of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy — and the eclectic music, blending electronica, Baroque themes and guitar-shredding hard rock with other textures, is jarringly anachronistic.
Jeannette’s medieval vision is expressed, above all, not by the saint herself, nor in the relatively brief visitation of silent heavenly figures whose message Joan interprets for us, but in the ecstatic mystical discourse of a young nun played by a pair of stone-faced twins (stay with me) who also appear as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret, alongside St. Michael. You probably already know whether or not this movie is for you, don’t you?
There is nothing in the opening minutes to foreshadow all this weirdness. The film opens with an extended shot of a stream in the French countryside (a title informs us that it is summer 1425) in which 9-year-old Jeanette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) appears, artlessly singing a capella, offering prayers to her patron saint John and the Holy Trinity, as a pious young peasant girl might do.
Her song quickly takes an unsettling turn, though, as the words of the Lord’s Prayer are subverted into an elegy:
Our Father who art in heaven
Your name is so far from being hallowed
And your reign from coming …
Jeanette is deeply troubled by the state of the world, by suffering and especially war, and by the damnation of souls. In a conflicted, Christological expression of the mystery of evil, she laments that the world has seen 14 centuries of Christianity since God sent his beloved Son to suffer and die, not to mention the saints, and yet “what reigns on the face of the earth is perdition.” Over and over Jeanette returns to the haunting refrain, “And there is nothing; there is never anything.”
Jeannette is a dialogue, and a mutual cross-examination, not only among the main characters of the drama, and above all between man and God, but also between the poet Péguy and the filmmaker Dumont, and even between Péguy the Socialist unbeliever of 1897 and Péguy the believing Catholic of 1910. It is also, of course, a dialogue between both artists and Joan herself (a dialogue some might consider one-sided, though Péguy might have demurred, at least in 1910).
Both as a believer and an unbeliever Péguy was an idiosyncratic, contradictory figure. Deeply nationalistic, ardently Socialist, he became an anticlerical unbeliever in high school, yet he always loved the Middle Ages and was fascinated by Joan of Arc all his life.
In 1897 Péguy completed an immense dramatic trilogy, called simply Jeanne d’Arc, surveying the life of the Maid of Orleans. By 1908 he had experienced a recovery of faith, and in 1910 — a decade before her canonization — he published The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, reworking material from the first of the earlier work’s three parts, which dealt with her childhood in the village of Domrémy.
Where the earlier work presented Joan in secular, nationalist terms, as an icon of an earthly, Socialist kingdom, the later one is awash with religious concerns. (Mystery of the Charity became the first of another trilogy of “mystery” poems, “mystery” here evoking medieval mystery plays as well as invoking the mysteries of Christ’s life and the theological virtues.)
Péguy’s conversion is reflected in the shifting depiction of Madame Gervaise, a Franciscan nun whom I understand the 1897 work depicted critically for fleeing the world’s problems to work out her private salvation, but who in Péguy’s later imagination becomes a voice of divine wisdom. (The screenplay draws on both texts, the 1897 and the 1910.)
Before Madame Gervaise, though, Jeannette is cross-examined by a young friend named Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier), who voices common sense and conventional piety. Unlike the neighbors, who know Jeannette to be devout and charitable and suppose her to be happy, Hauviette “sees things as they are” and knows that everything makes Jeannette unhappy.
Hauviette’s counsel is reasonable: Why carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do your best and hope for the best; trust God and don’t ask him to justify himself, since we can’t anyway.
But Jeannette can’t be satisfied with this. What do individual acts of charity accomplish, since suffering never diminishes? What did Jesus accomplish? Could he have died in vain?
The response to Joan’s anxieties is a breathtaking 18-minute sequence at once sublime and at least bordering on ridiculous. There is a sense of revelation in the dramatic arrival of Madame Gervaise that is enhanced by the unexplained casting of twins (Aline and Elise Charles), giving the nun’s soteriological and sacramental mystical theology an almost literally ecstatic quality. (Ek-stasis is Greek for “standing outside oneself.”)
The same twins appear later, more colorfully attired yet silent, as Saints Margaret and Catherine, but it feels as if the voices of Margaret and Catherine have already been heard in Madame Gervaise.
What the nun offers is, on the one hand, an even more uncompromising restatement of the problem of evil, countered by a poetic vision of time from the perspective of eternity.
On the one hand, the earth is full of suffering and profaning of holy things — and all of us, even the best among us, are complicit cowards and liars who allow sinners to damn themselves. All love and friendship are false and we are all alone (though in spite of our inability to love we somehow love anyway).
On the other hand, the creation of the world and the redemptive sacrifice of Christ are not vanished, past realities, but pervade all of time and space: every parish and village, especially in the even-present offering of the Paschal mystery, yet also embracing the non-Christian world, which is in some way Christian, too. Redemption — true, eternal happiness — are present realities; though non-Christians and even Christians may not understand it, we do not wait for happiness, but possess it now.
Human suffering has a role in God’s plan — though the suffering of the damned is different, and Madame Gervaise warns against Jeannette’s blasphemous notion of saving the damned from hell, even to the point of imagining suffering perdition on their behalf.
The gravity with which the sisters intone Péguy’s poetry, with its chant-like reliance on simplicity and repetition, gives this sequence a semi-liturgical feel. There is also, of course, an undeniable element of humor in the dissonant musical styles — from the eclecticist Gautier Serre, credited as Igorrr — veering from a capella to classical guitar to thrash metal, with Jeanette and the twins (briefly doffing their wimples) solemnly flailing their long tresses like medieval headbangers.
Yet it never dissolves into camp or burlesque. A provocateur who has invoked the names of both Jesus and Satan in the titles of past films, Dumont is at least interested in religious ideas, and he’s definitely interested in the gray area between the outrageous and the absurd.
While he wants to have fun with the material, Dumont doesn’t appear to wish to deconstruct or debunk it. Whatever Dumont or his cast make of Péguy’s text, or however much or little they even understand it, the dancing sequences become a kind of prayer. At one point the twins and Jeannette begin miming invisible walls, gesturing toward the unseen.
Wisely, Dumont lays a naturalistic foundation in the opening scenes, starting with the stream (evoking perhaps Jeannette’s stream of consciousness), which helps to hold the later craziness together. The crucial sequence, in a sandy plain amid loudly bleating sheep, is full of huge blue skies; with her matching blue dress, Jeannette is already closer to heaven than Hauviette in her earth tones.
All the singing was recorded live, a crucial element of truthfulness that in turn restrains the choreography to rather simple, unpolished moves (lots of jumping up and down and running in circles), to winningly authentic effect.
Ultimately, of course, Jeannette cannot accept Madame Gervaise’s Franciscan counsel of abandonment to divine Providence and nonviolent acceptance of suffering and evil. Energized by a sign from God and the appearance of her heavenly visitors, she will set out to “kill war.” (Following suit, Péguy was an early World War I volunteer and an early casualty in 1914.)
The film’s second half finds Joan or Jeanne (Jeanne Voisin), now about 15, wrestling with her inaction since receiving her call, obstacles she has faced and concerns about lying to her parents. Finally, there is the emotional upheaval of leaving home to go to war, escorted by her unassuming young uncle (a hilariously low-key Nicolas Leclaire, who raps all his songs and dabs through his improvised dance moves).
It seems the first half relies more on Péguy’s 1910 Mystery of the Charity and the second half more on the 1897 Jeanne d’Arc. (Jeanne’s uncle isn’t a character in the 1910 work, so his scenes must come from the earlier work.) At times it feels overly repetitive, though it remains agreeable and often moving.
Certainly there’s nothing in the second half to rival the Madame Gervaise sequence. Does that highlight undercut the later material or elevate it? I may need another viewing to decide. In any case, what a highlight! The next time someone asks me for a film with a persuasively medieval spirit, my answer will be more complicated.
The narration in verse has been set to music adapted from authentic medieval melodies, and is sung in the original old French by a chorus of minstrels playing traditional instruments, as well as by the players themselves. The players’ bright costumes and the overtly stagey sets — a grove of abstract sculpture-like trees for a forest; simple façade castles built of painted wood — were inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.