The day I first met Bruno Dumont, a blistering hot August afternoon in a hotel perched atop the hills of Locarno, was also the day before production for his latest film, Jeanne (Joan of Arc), was due to kick off. A sequel to his 2017 Jeannette, a musical period-piece on the childhood of Joan of Arc which had world premiered in Cannes and had continued its festival tour with a bow in the Swiss Alps, Jeanne had big shoes to fill. Scored by French electro-musician Igorrr and choreographed by Philippe Decouflé, Jeannette dwelled into the formative years of the 15th century French martyr through the most unlikely—and original—rubric imaginable: heavy metal music. For a heroine incessantly dissected and celebrated by decades of cinema history (from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc to Philippe Ramos’ 2011 The Silence of Joan), Jeannette felt like a long overdue departure toward more inventive and rollicking pastures. And it also signaled a shift away from the insularity of Dumont’s first seminal works, and a continued interest in sequels, Jeanne being the director’s second after the sci-fi 4-part comedy series P’tit Quinquin and its follow-up, CoinCoin and the Extra Humans.
So you can understand my anticipation when Cannes director Thierry Frémaux announced, a few weeks ago, that Jeanne had found a slot in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. I entered the Debussy theatre bracing for another display of death-metal mayhem, but it only took a few minutes for Jeanne to reveal that things had changed. No longer scored by Igorrr but the melodic French pop singer Christophe—and thus sadly exempted from the head-banging dances that enveloped Jeannette, members of the clergy, saints and soldiers—Jeanne feels a lot more somber and a lot less playful than its predecessor. To be sure, part of the renewed gravitas owes to the sheer fact that History, and Joan’s role in it, has taken a dramatic turn. Where Jeannette had homed in on The Maid of Orleans’ childhood and teenage years, with then-8-year-old actress Lise Leplat Prudhomme to star in the first segment and the older Jeanne Voisin to incarnate Joan as a teenager, Jeanne covers the last three years in the girl's life, circa 1428 to 1431, and is premised on a neatly divided three-part scaffolding: Joan at war with the English; Joan at war with the clergy who accuse her of heresy; Joan’s last prison days ahead of the horrific fate she’s sentenced to.
Formally, the austere mood translates in a more static and solemn shot composition. Decouflé’s routines and Igorrr’s score had injected much dynamism into Jeannette’s talk-heavy script, making up for the lack of battle scenes with all-out-bonkers performances that both did their fair share of narrative heavy-lifting and loosened up some hardcore theological disquisitions. By contrast, Jeanne strikes as a lot less musical than Jeannette had been. Where Igorrr’s music had served as a near-omnipresent collagen, Christophe’s tunes are sporadic, scarce presences. And the few times the French singer’s falsetto bursts into songs inspired by the source material for Dumont’s adaptation of the Joan of Arc saga—the play by Belle Époque writer Charles Péguy, “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc”—characters and camera remain motionless, the latter often fixed on Lise Leplat Prudhomme as she stares in fourth-wall breaking shots while Christophe’s songs play out in full. And blessed with a magnetic and preternatural stage presence as the 10-year-old may be, a fiery stare that dons her prolonged close-ups a hypnotic vibe, the gimmick soon loses steam.
That said, casting Prudhomme as the eponymous Jeanne turned out to be a terrific choice. Speaking in Locarno, Dumont said Jeanne had been envisaged with Jeannette’s Jean Voisin as lead, but the actress had several concerns with the role, and the collaboration ended abruptly. It was a blessing in disguise. By having 10-year-old Prudhomme play a soon-to-be martyr six year younger than the real-life Joan would have been in 1428, Dumont’s stunt adds an interesting spin to the history of the cinematic Joans who came before her (interestingly, the second youngest actress to step in the saint’s shoes was 19-year-old Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s 1957 Saint Joan; the oldest, 39-year-old Ingrid Bergman’s in Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Joan of Arc at the Stake). But the choice also brings the heroine far closer to the audience than an older actress might have allowed.
Watching Prudhomme confront church elders and senior army folks, a clunky armor wrapped around the body of an angelical 10-year-old girl concurrently fighting a foreign enemy and a calcified, patriarchal Church, is the type of dissonance that allows Dumont to both stir empathy for an unjustly executed child (it is no coincidence the adults keep calling her so), and also underscore her indomitable no-nonsense swagger vis-à-vis the stony world of the grownups she’s up against. And in a last segment that unfolds as an interminable debate on theology, free will and faith, Prudhomme’s mix of vulnerability and courage offers some respite from the otherwise complex, ivory-tower elucubrations.
Like him or not, Dumont’s ability to navigate budget constraints and to conjure up a poetic imagery from the simplest interplay between man and nature is a talent to behold. Much like in Jeannette, production values are here kept to a bare minimum, David Chambille’s camera following Jeanne and fellow soldiers roaming the dunes of Northern France, or craning around the spellbinding marbles of Amiens Cathedral. Battles are non-existent, or rather, invoked through gorgeously choreographed pageantry of horses, shot from above. And while Jeanne is unlikely to earn Dumont new acolytes, and more likely to baffle even the most fervent of devotees for some of its more tedious, head-scratching segments, it achieves, much like Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or contender A Hidden Life, the miraculous feat of simultaneously jibing at a dogmatic religious institution, while celebrating faith in all its mystery and baffling beauty.
The day after Dumont’s latest the sky above the Croisette hung cerebral and gloomy, a fitting prelude to the sinister aura of what was possibly the hottest entry in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight: Robert Eggers’ follow up to his fulminating 2015 horror The Witch, the Willem Dafoe- and Robert Pattinson-starring The Lighthouse. Much like Eggers’ debut had left an indelible mark for its playful devilry, Eggers’ latest is an entrancing and feverish descent into hell, peppered and sustained by a dark, alcohol-fueled, wry comic edge. To say that The Lighthouse far exceeded the cloud of expectations it came wrapped in is a polite understatement. It’s been almost twenty-four hours since I left the Croisette theatre and the crowd that rose in a standing ovation for Eggers, Dafoe, and Pattinson—and I am yet to recover from all I saw.
Shot on black-and-white film and set in the 1890s in a barren island off the coast of Nova Scotia, The Lighthouse follows Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, lighthouse keepers due to serve in the remote piece of Atlantic rock for a four-week stint. For apprentice Pattinson, this amounts to a plethora of demeaning chores, from tending to the cistern, swabbing liquor-stained floors, and emptying buckets of shit into the raging sea. No point in even thinking about tending to the actual lighthouse chamber; as Dafoe’s spirited-eyed, spiky-haired and rotten-toothed ex-sailor bellows among liquor-propelled dinners, the light is strictly off limits. Why on earth that may be is a question the script, penned by Eggers and his brother Max, hints at by means of haunting and spine-tingling reveries, with Pattinson’s Winslow, a deranged cross between a Prometheus and Icarus, slowly plunging into the same fate previous aides of Dafoe’s allegedly succumbed to: unhinged madness.
To be watching The Lighthouse is to join in the same journey. It is to submit to a disquieting, stomach-churning manic dream of a film which, despite harboring no jump scare moments, engulfs one in a terrifying embrace accentuated by Mark Korven’s score, here playing with low strings and threatening fog horns. It is a tale that revels on the outstanding performances of its leads, a two-men’s drama that stretches far beyond the confines of a godforsaken island and its lighthouse, and draws from a pantheon of centuries-old heroes and mythical archetypes, from Captain Ahab to Triton, from Sisyphus to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
In this sense, the beauty of The Lighthouse resides in his timelessness. This is a film that exists beyond time, a folkloric tale that harkens back to ancestral struggles between wrathful gods and men’s hubris. Dafoe and Pattinson spend half their time fighting each other and the other half enveloped in tender, boozy embraces. A near-tangible tension permeates each and every exchange, but there are moments of comedic liftoff too, stirred up by the 19th century dialogue and the clumsy, toxic chemistry between Wake, a flatulent cross between an evangelical pastor and a pirate, and the bookish-turned-alcoholic-turned-paranoid Winslow.
And it just looks gorgeous. Eggers, whose meticulousness and attention to period details had graced The Witch with a mesmeric look, opts for old 35mm cameras on Orthochromatic stock. An early standard in filmmaking eventually replaced for its tendency to make skin tones too dark, it does wonders to capture the hues of candlelit dinner conversations, the mud and dirt covering the pair’s faces, turning the scarcely furbished interiors into nightmarish ink drawings. The few moments cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s camera ventures outside the confines of the dim-lit interiors to capture a misty, aluminium sky, the light feels almost unbearably bright. For this remains a tale of darkness, with a boxy Academy ratio that only accentuates the feeling of claustrophobia, and a lighthouse whose lugubrious beam doesn't thrust people into light, but only brings them closer to insanity.
I recall your last dispatch ending with a wish—you hoped the movies I’ve been watching could be just as entertaining as the last three you wrote about. I fear "entertaining" would not be a right fit for either Jeanne or The Lighthouse. But Dumont’s poetic imagery and the savage beauty of Eggers’ sophomore picture are things to behold and marvel at, and two of the many reasons this first trip to Cannes is turning into an unforgettable experience.
More from me again soon,