French art-movie needler Bruno Dumont makes films that might be described as staring contests with the viewer: Who will blink first, the moviegoer confronted with the penetrating, often religiously tinged eccentricities on display? Or Dumont, if only because his sleepy, long takes with typically affectless non-professional performers need to end at some point?
His is an aesthetic that has earned him plenty of fans and detractors — extremes of style tend to divide audiences like that. But it’s also a career that, having started with a Bressonian-inspired rigor about crises of purpose and faith (“Life of Jesus,” “Humanité”) and empty violence (“Twentynine Palms”), has of late been reinvigorated by the possibilities of absurdist (and expectedly pitch-black) comedy with the acclaimed made-for-television murder mystery “Li’l Quinquin” and the class satire “Slack Bay.”
Now, with “Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc,” in which the legendary teenage saint gets the rock-opera treatment by way of French poet Charles Peguy, Dumont is flirting with whether there’s something compellingly alchemic in wrapping the kind of spiritual allegories that once dominated his movies, in a package of occasionally unabashed loopiness.
And yet the resulting oddity, as if the Monty Python gang had usurped a Sunday-school musical, is neither a “Simpsons”-like goof on tunefests (“Joan!”) nor an unserious depiction of madness-flecked, God-fortified nationalism bursting at the seams. In its own weird way, it makes a suitably worthy contribution toward our understanding of an iconic figure’s heroic enlightenment.
The movie, set primarily in a sandy, coastal terrain of blue skies and picturesque streams, offers two frolicking Joans — a conscientious 8-year-old shepherdess (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) despairing aloud in hummable verse over suffering and war as she stomps her feet in the ground with playful abandon, and a few years later, the forthright teenager (Jeanne Voisin) eager to turn her mystical visions into action to save France from the conquering English. Joan’s younger childlike moves have now been replaced by a physicality represented in somersaults, cartwheels, kicks and twirls.
Along the way, she’s visited by her friend Hauviette, a follower of the faith (and, apropos of nothing, expert spider-walker) who engages directly with Joan’s spiritual concerns, and a nun named Madame Gervase whom Dumont splits into two habit-frocked figures (Aline and Elise Charles), perhaps to better showcase choreographer Philippe Decloufé’s symmetrical mix of amateurish dance steps and headbanging.
Later, Joan’s uncle (Nicolas Leclaire) arrives to offer up the film’s last bit of glaringly offbeat 15th century-meets-present-day expression: a deadpan rap augmented by some awkward dabs. (As if to round out his sweetly ill-fitting presence alongside his determined niece, Dumont also has him pratfall twice.)
All of this is, as you might imagine, defiantly obtuse, the movie’s disaffectedly delivered dialogue — which was culled from a pair of Peguy texts about the martyred heroine’s youth — squeezed obstinately between Dumont’s statically composed community theater aesthetics and a churningly melodic fuzz-and-thrash score by Gallic death-metal outfit Igorrr. But if one accepts “Jeannette” as the ultimate what’s-left rejoinder to countless movie visions of the adolescent saint — from Dreyer through Preminger and even Dumont’s hero Bresson — then it’s not hard to find space in your cultural brainpan for a version of history as clumsy, chord-ripping, medieval cosplay beach jam.
Of course, all ecstasies ebb, and the teenage distortion that is “Jeannette” is no exception: Dumont’s imagination is fertile, but not exactly full when it runs close to two hours. What’s always evident, however, is a punk-rock respect for Joan as a symbol of exuberant outrageousness. Who’s to say the soundtrack to her vision of a victorious France wasn’t a phalanx of shredded guitars and gnarly drum solos? Were you there? I didn’t think so.
‘Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc’
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills