If you thought the sudden move of French director Burno Dumont from austere drama to increasingly wacky comedy in the TV miniseries P'tit Quinquin and last year’s farce Slack Bay was a shock, prepare yourself for Jeannette, an electro-musical dance film on the adolescent life of Joan of Arc. Opening with little Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) humming prayers to herself along the river Meuse (in fact, Dumont re-locates the story to his beloved northern France), suddenly the music swells, she belts one out—”there is nothing, there is never anything, but perdition!”—and ends it all with a handspring and splits. “Why do you do that?” asks a passing child, but the answer is obvious: lonesome, poor, in love with charity and full of doubts, Jeannette bounds with childhood’s pent up energy and calls forth her questions, protests and passion in bodily, soulful fervor. With this beginning, Dumont immediately inspires that rare thing in an art film, a laugh and joyous smile.
The rest is much the same: nearly all one location, amidst a sandy hillock where the young shepherdess tends her sheep, with most dialog and all prayers and inner yearning expressed both as rocking songs (by French musician Igorrr) and modest, silly and wild “unprofessional” dance choreography (by Philippe Decouflé and Clémence Galliard): feet stamping, head banging, fluttered hands, running in a circle. Morally aghast at the English besieging France and the ineffectiveness of her prayers to expel them, Jeannette dismisses her friend’s modest plea to focus not on France but on their crop by decrying that “until someone murders war, we are all children playing in a field.” The minimalist location is powerfully called forth by Guillaume Deffontaines's blue-and-sand photography and Dumont’s use of the location's sounds—tremendous wind, the comic bleating of sheep, the sloshing of water at Jeannette’s feet. This direct encounter with raw material before the camera, when combined with Jeannette's turmoil—political, spiritual, national—and call for youth to do more to make the whole world better, calls to mind the powerful, fiercely political adaptations by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet like Antigone (1992). “If one are hungry, all are hungry,” Jeannette pleads, “My soul knows how to love those not here, those absent.”
As in Staub-Huillet’s work, here is the bracing delight of cinema’s core pleasure: the camera conjuring fierce physicality, light changes, the sounds of a specific place, the encounter of another person’s presence—and that person’s inextricable role as a participant in making or unmaking the world around them. Prudhomme is beguiling, the perfect mix of precision and sloppy play, she joins Falconetti as a full person and true embodiment of Christian fervor, doubt, ego, devotion and ambition. When, in the film’s final third, we jump three years in time to Jeannette’s calling to leave her home and lead France’s army, the actress changes to the older Jeanne Voisin, a transformation into a being more womanly, more conventionally beautiful, and intangibly a bit less surprising than the younger actress. Jeannette is joined by her uncle, who loves her such that he’ll assist her claim to God's calling and lie to their family so she may escape. He’s played by Nicolas Leclaire as a hilarious, touchingly dedicated dolt, rapping in a cappella and slipping off horses and stumbling around. His charming wackiness is the closest the film gets to the the comedy of Dumont’s last two films, which signals Jeanne’s mature exasperation still being at home, and enables her to escape and head to a greater fight.
In its spare focus and unvarying location, Dumont's fabulous film stringently channels provincial desperation, nationalist shame, religious aspiration and spiritual yearning into a form nearly naked in its vulnerable faith and silliness. Dumont uses sync sound to capture the songs, adapted from Charles Péguy’s poetry, in all their wonderful, erratic splendor: Jeannette clears her throat after one song, and, in one of the most magical moments I can remember in cinema, after the end of a vigorous song-and-dance the older Jeannette faces the camera directly and we hear her actual heartbeat. This magical sound is at once a transparent connection to the actress acting and a direct, corporeal transmission of Jeanne’s passion from her body to us in the cinema. “Your current greatness is the same greatness, eternal greatness,” a mirrored duo of nuns sings, trying to soothe Jeannette’s distress at her unanswered prayers, her ineffective charity, the invaders in her lands. Then, to accentuate their point, they remove their cowls, revealing bountiful curls, and begin headbanging—and Jeannette joins them in supplication and joy.