In 1428, Jeanne d'Arc, an illiterate seventeen-year-old farm girl from the village of Domremy in the Lorraine valley traveled to Vaucouleurs to seek out an army captain named Robert de Baudricourt. Capt. Baudricourt was to assist her in meeting the Dauphin, Charles (later to become Charles VII), currently holding an ineffective court at Chinon, and who the young girl claimed was the rightful heir to the French throne. According to her, Charles was to provide her with arms, horses and an army that she would lead in driving the English out of Orléans. Subsequently, Charles would be crowned King of France in the city of Rheims. The kingdom of France would then be restored, and this task Jeanne's voices (St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret who appeared to her as angels) had first revealed to her when she was some thirteen years old.
Thus many us know about the beginnings of the story of Jeanne d'Arc , national heroine and patron saint of France (a.k.a. Joan of Arc, or, in the medieval French form, Jehanne d'Arc or Darc). Things were to unfold exactly as Jeanne had predicted. She saw her goal finally achieved at Rheims, shortly after the siege of Orléans was lifted by the English. But Jeanne was not to sustain such success--or even live--too much longer afterwards. Following a few more battles with several losses among them, she was captured at Compiègne by Burgundian Frenchmen who sold her to the English. The latter apparently feared and despised the young girl. (You would, too, if you were defeated by a motley army led by a mere teenager from the country who had no military training or background to speak of.)
The English turned her over to the pro-English court of ecclesiasticals at Rouen. This court held her in a civil prison guarded by English jailers (as opposed to the required archbishopric prison guarded by women) and did not provide her with an advocate during her trial for charges of witchcraft, impurity, donning men's clothes, and rebelling against the Church. In what was later recognized as a rigged judicial process, the court would find her guilty of wearing men's clothing (signifying her refusal to submit to Church authority), and condemn her to death.
A bit more background might be in order. It was in 1415 that the
heavily outnumbered English army led by Henry V (and aided by their use of
the longbow) delivered a humiliating defeat to the French at the Battle of
Agincourt (made unforgettable by Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in the screen versions of Shakespeare's Henry V).
France in effect became an English-occupied country. Soon, only a few towns
mostly south of the Loire river remained loyal to Charles, whose claim to
the throne was negated by the Treaty of Troyes. Negotiated by Charles VI
of France, the Duke of Burgundy Philippe le Bon (Philip the Good) and Henry
V of England, the Treaty essentially placed France under the double monarchy
of England and France under the English crown. France's state of shambles
owed much to a lethal combination of self-indulgent dissoluteness and incompetence
in its rulers (labeled by some as their "sinfulness"--which would give credence
to Jeanne d'Arc's claim that the French needed to become virtuous and good
men to gain victory over the English). It was to save the French kingdom
that the young peasant girl from the Lorraine valley would come to Vaucouleurs
with a strange request.
Here the story of Jacques Rivette's Jeanne La Pucelle / Joan the Maid begins. We accompany Jeanne as she carries out her mission to rid the strategic Orléans of the English and pave the way for Charles' coronation at Rheims, then witness as she suffers through the subsequent ill turn of events that include her unjust trial at Rouen, her imprisonment, and finally, her burning at the stake.
Like his colleagues of the French Nouvelle Vague/New Wave (François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer), Director Rivette makes movies on his own terms. Sometimes it works, other times, no. With Jeanne La Pucelle, everything (or nearly so) converges in a truly inspired manner. The result is a breathtakingly magnificent film of understated grandeur. Destined for classic status, it is the kind of picture that reveals something new, fresh and hitherto unseen with each subsequent viewing.
Of Mr. Rivette's other films familiar to me, La Religieuse/The Nun (with Ana Karina in the title role) most closely resembles Jeanne La Pucelle in style. In keeping with his minimalist film diction, both La Religieuse and Jeanne La Pucelle
possess a stark and plain look, which is key to how these pre-modern milieus
are evoked with such mastery. It would be no different if Mr. Rivette took
his crew back five hundred years in time to film events as they occurred,
so realistic is his re-creation of the medieval atmosphere.
The clean, naturalistic film shots boast an elegant simplicity, with a luminous transparency akin to the freshness of watercolors. Many frames exhibit such compositional beauty yet do not distract from the story. Although color film stock was used, some scenes show striking contrasts between light and dark and create the dramatic aesthetics peculiar to black-and-white photography. William Lubtchansky's expert cinematography evokes painterly moods that perfectly suit each scene, from the breezy outdoor shots of Jeanne and her captains on the river bank planning their assaults, to the soft golden light of daybreak bathing the heavy-lidded soldiers whom Jeanne has roused from their sleep. Few other films allow one to marvel at the visuals while remaining intrigued by the unfolding tale.
Interestingly, although the film runs at what one might call a leisurely pace, it's far from being dull. Each scene is unhurried, yet not a single one feels static. Unlike the director's agonizingly immobile La Belle Noiseuse, Jeanne La Pucelle manages to hold your interest with either camera movement or a significant, often subtle action taking place onscreen.
The script (by Christine Laurent [also the costume designer], Pascale Bonitzer and Mr. Rivette himself) stays scrupulously faithful to the historical documents. Dramatic license accounts for the minor liberties taken hither and yon. Much of the dialogue has been lifted verbatim from testimony given by Jeanne as well as various trial witnesses, all contemporaries of Jeanne. In his wisdom, Mr. Rivette makes no attempt to reinterpret the legend and the tale, and holds back any judgment on most everyone and everything. To be sure, his is certainly a sympathetic Jeanne d'Arc, presented (thankfully) sans any post-Freudian psychiatric gobbledygook and invention. Acceptance or rejection of the tale or aspects of it is left entirely up to the audience, whom he assumes to be intelligent beings.
The use of improvisational acting techniques stands the film in good stead here. Mr. Rivette seems to have let his actors have a go at it while he kept the cameras rolling, recording all that transpired, whether planned or not. This manner of filming (which I do believe is how the shoot went) gives the picture a compelling, quasi-documentary tone.
As for the acting: briefly stated, unostentatious but excellent.
You won't find large, theatrical gestures or histrionics from anyone here;
just unadorned, cinéma vérité-style acting from all, from the slightly awkward
and shy teenaged Mathieu Busson as Louis de Coutes, (Jeanne's young page assigned to her by the Dauphin), to, of course, Sandrine Bonnaire as the good and virtuous Jeanne.
Once again, Ms. Bonnaire impresses with her thoroughly convincing portrayal of the historical Jeanne. In a restrained but riveting performance, she projects Jeanne's stubborn singlemindedness of purpose and her unwavering belief in the rightness of her cause. We also witness Jeanne's touching humanity, humanness and piety, elements that went missing in Luc Besson's totally imagined abomination, The Messenger: Joan of Arc. We can easily accept this Jeanne as someone good and also bold, one who through her charm, resolve and plain speech could persuade such battle-hardened men-at-arms as Jean de Metz (Capt. Baudricourt's squire, played by Olivier Cruveiller), Raoul de Gaucourt (Didier Sauvegrain), the foul-mouthed La Hire (Stéphane Boucher), le Bâtard d'Orléans (the Bastard of Orléans; Patrick Le Mauff), the Duke d'Alençon (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and many others to submit to her leadership.
Jeanne comes across as a real person, a simple, unsophisticated and plain-speaking farm girl who brings no selfish personal agenda to the battlefield, unlike the vengeful Joan of Mr. Besson's The Messenger. She only wishes to follow the orders given her by her voices. When Jeanne is first injured during the assault on the Tourelles, we sense her vulnerability and perceive her as just another mortal being who also feels pain when wounded. We see Jeanne's compassionate nature as she weeps, too, for the fallen enemy soldiers. Her deep piety manifests as her constant search for spiritual counsel through prayer and speaking with her confessor, Brother Jean Pasquerel (Mathias Jung), as well as her intolerance of swearing by La Hire and others, scenes of which provide some of the film's lighter moments.
Much of the film footage allows Ms. Bonnaire to display her impressive riding (and jousting) skills. The real Jeanne possessed as much, and together with her inspiring leadership, amazed all who witnessed her in action, since they were found in one completely untrained in these arts.
A few sticklers might take issue with Ms. Bonnaire's apparent age
here (she was in her late twenties when the film was made, versus the real
Jeanne d'Arc's age of about nineteen). In the context of the film's overall
excellence, it is a mere triviality and of no consequence. Perhaps the (passable,
especially considering its source) version of Joan of Arc that aired on US TV some years ago can lay claim to having the best "young" Joan in Leelee Sobieski: she was perfectly cast with her close-to-ideal look of young innocence paired with the requisite acting chops.
While such is rarely the case with most historical dramas, authenticity is clearly of paramount importance to Jeanne La Pucelle's creators. The small but significant details in Jeanne's story are all depicted according to specifications drawn from contemporary accounts, down to the spelling of Jeanne's name in medieval French, the design of her standard, even her forced signature on the document of abjuration at the Rouen trial. Through the bits of quotidian medieval practices included in the film we are also given a true flavor of life then (e.g., the shoeing of a horse, the coronation rites at Rheims).
Mr. Rivette keeps the music to a bare minimum, with just a handful of scenes accompanied by music. The esteemed Spanish musician-composer Jordi Savall and Renaissance era composer Guillaume Dufay share the credit for the spare but splendid musical works, instrumental and vocal pieces that add to the period ambience. (Mr. Savall, for those who care, also directed the music for the Gérard Depardieu film, Tout les Matins du Monde / All the Mornings of the World).
The film's major weakness may lie, perhaps, in its presentation of the many characters with nary an introduction, whether overt or implied. It assumes a deeper knowledge of the historical backstory on the viewer's part, one beyond the "unlettered farm girl leads French troops in routing the English at Orléans and gets Dauphin crowned King of France" variety. Audiences with a mere passing acquaintance with the events and personages of the tale will be at sea as to who is who, and how they relate to Jeanne. Mr. Rivette is not one to spoonfeed his audience. Only with the help of outside reading and repeat viewings did I fully comprehend the film's narrative. The end results of such extra work are well worth it, though.
With regard to the DVD version, blatant examples of carelessness mar an otherwise superior product. On the plus side, the letterboxed digital transfer is flawless and sharp, with a clear audio signal. Added extras include filmographies of the director and star, a detailed historical timeline, pieces on Jacques Rivette and the French New Wave, Rivette and Jeanne La Pucelle's tale, Jeanne La Pucelle itself, and a history of Joan of Arcs on film. On the minus side, the suboptimal English subtitles are sometimes inaccurate and incomplete. The added feature of a historical timeline is nice, but descriptions of this DVD version's film content vis-à-vis the trial records are sometimes plain wrong. (See note following for reason why!).
(Note: The DVD's commentary is largely inaccurate with regard to the four-hour, truncated version, but speaks correctly of the full six-hour, version en français, a copy of which I managed to get, with original French dialogue without English subtitles, unletterboxed, in a depressingly poor-quality video made in 1995 in Canada. What a shame that we miss out on so much of the wonderful scenes in this unexpurgated version, which include the direct-to-camera commentary by personages who knew Jeanne, scenes with Catherine de la Rochelle (the fake 'visionary'), illuminating discussions in the court of Charles VII that included Jeanne,the Ducs d' Alençon and d'Orléans, the full details of Jeanne's aborted first attempt to go to the Dauphin sans Capt Baudricourt's help, etc.!)
Previously, I paid little heed to the story of Joan of Arc since learning of her legend while in the grades. Jacques Rivette's
outstanding cinematic retelling of the Maid's tale compelled me to learn
more about this enigmatic character, a humble peasant girl who changed the
course of French history, consequently assuming not just heroic status but
also a saintly one.
Incredibly enough, the events are all in the historical record, recounted by witnesses at the two trials of Jeanne d'Arc. The first was the Trial of Condemnation carried out by the English sympathizers at Rouen, which led to Jeanne's tragic and cruel death by burning. The second took place some twenty-five years later as the Trial of Rehabilitation, carried out by the Inquisition using new evidence and testimony left out in the first trial. This last declared Jeanne innocent of the charges originally brought against her a quarter-century before.
Certainly, atheists and skeptics may raise an eyebrow at the religious aspect of the tale. To my mind, it only adds interest and mystery to Jeanne d'Arc's story. Was she simply mad, neurotic or possessed? Was she a witch, as some have put forth? Jeanne does not seem to have been a madwoman--her intelligent and witty replies to the churchmen who questioned her at Poitiers put the lie to that claim. Neither can her lucidity in planning the successful assaults have arisen from neurosis or possession. Her sincere compassion for all who fell, whether English or French, was widely witnessed by her companions in battle as well.
So, was she truly divinely inspired? Debating this matter might be as useful as arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Jeanne's inspiration by God continues to be accepted by the French, and while I tend to agree with them, I also harbor a touch of agnosticism about the issue. One must bear in mind that religious belief played a major part in the lives of medieval folk, in a manner that may seem quaint to our more secular and cynical world today. Perhaps, as filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski believed, some things might be better left mysterious and unexplained.
All in all, I strongly recommend Jeanne La Pucelle to viewers seeking a marvelously understated and historically accurate dramatization of Jeanne d'Arc's story, to those who love medieval / French history, and to those who take pleasure in being transported to a historical place so distant in time and culture.
The DVD comes in two discs: The Battles (112 mins.) and The Prisons (116 mins.), whose titles are less accurate than one would think (a minor quibble).
Just a few tips (these are far from sufficient) that may help in understanding the film, for those who, like woefully ignorant me, know little more than the basic facts of Jeanne d'Arc's tale:
"Godons" is French slang for the English soldiers.
The Bourguignons or Burgundians were Frenchmen sympathetic to the English occupiers, while the Armagnacs were those loyal to Charles.
"Classidas", "Suffort"and "La Poule" are the names Jeanne used in her summonses (letters) to the English captains who laid the siege to Orléans: respectively, Glasdale, (the Earl of) Suffolk, and William Pool.
Jeanne's two brothers, Jean and Pierre, went with her to fight the English. The kindly Pierre appears in several scenes in Jeanne La Pucelle.
Additionally, I read a comment written somewhere by a Francophone
decrying the use of jarringly modern French slang in the dialogue. Ah, well,
this shouldn't really pose a problem for non-French speaking viewers, no?
All of the beautiful color movie stills posted on this page were taken from
Le Roman d'un tournage (in French; published by Editions J Clattès, 1994), the interesting journal of sorts about the film shoot--before, during and after--written by Sandrine Bonnaire
herself. The slim volume is an honest, fascinating, very rare inside look
at the making of the landmark Jeanne d'Arc film, with the star's personal
views on everything, from the reason why M Rivette chose her for the role
(?) to the undeniable effect her character had upon her off-camera self.
It's an invaluable little book, and worth keeping.
The sole black-and-white still photograph (at the bottom of the page) was taken from the booklet accompanying the CD of the film soundtrack.