Early in the afternoon, half way through the Cannes Film Festival, Bruno Dumont sits inside the buzzing Terrasse du Festival. It’s day six on the Croisette, the festival has just passed its halfway mark, and the French maverick auteur just celebrated the world premiere of Jeanne (Joan of Arc). A sequel to his Jeannette, a musical period-piece on the childhood of Joan of Arc which premiered in the 2017 Directors’ Fortnight, Jeanne screened in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It homes in on the last three years in the short-lived life of the 15th century martyr, who helped kick the English out of France, reinstated the rule of King Charles VII, and was burned at the stake by Church elders who accused her of heresy.
Scored by French electro-musician Igorrr and choreographed by Philippe Decouflé, Jeannette evoked the Maid of Orleans’ spiritual awakening through a combination of heavy metal tunes and head-banging dance routines. It was a reckless and most inventive break from decades of film history which had crystallized and dissected Joan’s myth in every way possible. And it underscored Dumont’s departure from the insularity of his first seminal features, and his more recent interest in sequels—Jeanne being the director’s second after P’tit Quinquin's follow-up, Coincoin and the Extra Humans.
I sat with Dumont to speak of Jeannette’s sequel, his casting choices, and music as a means to approach the divine.
NOTEBOOK: In Jeannette, you’d cast two girls to play Joan of Arc, then-eight-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who served as preadolescent Joan, and the older Jeanne Voisin, who stepped in when the focus turned to the martyr’s adolescence. I was expecting you to continue with Jeanne Voisin as lead, and yet Jeanne stars Prudhomme as the titular heroine. Why the choice?
DUMONT: Jeanne Voisin had initially agreed to take on the role. But she soon started to show concerns for what it would actually entail, and eventually, the collaboration fizzled out. That meant I found myself in trouble: I had no actress to work with, and didn’t know where to look for one. Except we had one all along: Lise Leplat Prudhomme! We did some screen-tests to see what the kid looked like in an armor, and understood that there was something mysterious about her, something extraordinary. She wore this unique mix of childhood and innocence, something that spoke to the play Jeannette and Jeanne were based upon, Charles Péguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.” It was a revelation!
NOTEBOOK: There’s definitely something quite magnetic in watching a ten-year-old girl dressed in a man’s armor lead men to war and confront Church elders.
DUMONT: Oh, I’m actually quite happy we didn’t end up turning with the older actress. Remember that the film’s goal was not to seek historical accuracy—more like a timeless accuracy, if you will. And the fact that we were able to rely again on the younger girl is an asset, I believe. It’s another way to emphasize the idea of youth. All throughout the film we keep hearing people calling Joan a child, and that’s exactly what she is. Sure, it was an accidental choice, but it turned out to be a formidable thing in the end. That’s how I look at it.
NOTEBOOK: I remember watching Jeannette and being stunned by the dynamism and energy of the dance routines by choreographer Philippe Decouflé.
DUMONT: Yet we didn’t work with him here.
NOTEBOOK: Why is that?
DUMONT: He wasn’t really into horses. As in, the idea of staging the battle scenes with horses—he wasn’t a fan of them. So I worked directly with the French Republican Guard instead. And they had their own guards of honor choreographies, so I pretty much just worked on what the soldiers knew already. They showed me what they had in mind, and I was pretty happy with it. Plus, we really didn’t have much time; you have to remember these guys are army men who spend their time at the Élysée Palace, so it’s not exactly like they could have given me much of it. We figured out how to best approach the whole battle scene, agreed on the whole choreography, and then spent a day shooting.
NOTEBOOK: I was surprised by how sombre and austere Jeanne’s mood felt. And this translates in shots that feel a lot more static than they did in Jeannette. No more head-banging dances, sure, but also a tendency to leave the camera fixed on Lise Leplat Prudhomme, oftentimes in close-ups.
DUMONT: But that’s because things for Jeanne have changed! We’re in the midst of her coming of age: she’s grown up a little, she's no longer the little girl she was in Jeannette, and the child-like side to her has changed too. After all, remember she’s now a military leader. She’s acquired a confidence, a strength which needed to be filmed. She’s a soldier—a brave soldier, someone who managed to put King Charles VII back on his throne. And we needed to film and show that glory. Which meant we needed to design a glorious mise-en-scène, to capture her hierarchical dimension, her strength.
NOTEBOOK: Another striking change was your decision to do away with Jeannette’s French electro-musician Igorrr’s heavy metal score.
DUMONT: Jeannette’s music is a music of ecstasy. What we did there was try to film a conversion, a mysterious phenomenon. And heavy metal music, electronic music—that was the most appropriate rubric to capture that kind of “trip,” that electronic shock that makes young Joan realize she must stand up for the King of France. And electronic music really works here, it gives you that sense of… [thuds fingers on the table] scansion, if you like, which I thought was a good fit. But here, things are different. We deal with battles here, with her final trial. Jeanne has acquired a degree of spiritual maturity, and I needed to find something equivalent to that. I needed to find something that would exalt her strength and the depth of her spiritual life, but also something that would strike a balance between the two.
NOTEBOOK: Is that why you settled for French pop singer Christophe instead? I cannot think of anything more distant from Igorrr’s score than his melodic ballads.
DUMONT: Well, the thing about melodic music is that it’s comprehensible. Electronic music is the opposite—there’s nothing much to understand about it. Christophe is very melodic. He decorates, puts flowers over things that we may otherwise be ill-equipped to understand. But we understand them with and through him. It’s like Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St Matthew Passion.” It gives you access to something as mystic and complex as the Passion, helps you comprehend it, and does it through music. And to make Christophe adapt and sing Péguy’s play is to let him make the text clearer, so to speak. His way of singing, his music—they give us an entry point into the text, facilitating our comprehension. Even in the moments where we may not entirely understand the theological and political disquisitions, he helps make things clearer. But there are some things, some issues within those mystic ruminations that are quite obscure. And I want what is obscure to remain such, and the musical ornament to add things, and make them clearer. And he made what he made. He wouldn’t reveal much about his creative process, but very often I’d give him a text to work on in the evening, and he’d hand me the music the next day.
NOTEBOOK: That’s a quite a turnaround pace.
DUMONT: It is. And it’s quite baffling. I’d give him the text and the next thing you know he’d come up to me and say “there you go, I got this down.” Still don’t know how he does it.
NOTEBOOK: In Jeanne, you were able to shoot Joan's trial inside the Amiens Cathedral. If I'm not mistaken, that's the first time your Joan of Arc saga features an interiors scene. How did the shooting go?
DUMONT: We shot for a combined total of two weeks. And we had tourists inside the cathedral, too. We couldn’t have it shut. But we shot in chunks, meaning the whole cast was never on set at the same time. We patched it all together in the editing room. To be fair, Jeannette almost never saw Christophe—his was a segment we shot three weeks later. So we had to figure something out, and had her act while staring at a some duct tape we would place where Christophe would be. And it worked well. It’s amazing to realize how easily she could adapt to every tasks.