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On the Verge of Heaven: An Interview with Bruno Dumont

The director of the electro-pop musical "Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc" talks about God, poetry, his process and his actors.
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.

NOTEBOOK: Dreyer, Rossellini, Bresson, Rivette—the cinematic history of Joan of Arc is very rich. What made you want to contribute to this legacy?
BRUNO DUMONT: It’s a story very often heard, but we haven’t heard her childhood. And this is what I wanted to do, talk about her childhood. I liked the idea of starting where other people won’t. What other people haven’t done.
NOTEBOOK: What was inspiring to you about Joan’s childhood experience specifically?
DUMONT: What I was interested in was seeing how Jeannette becomes Joan of Arc, how it all goes. She’s a peasant girl and she’s very much a saint and a martyr, but what I was interested in was the germination process. What in her flaming little heart was happening and how it evolved into Joan of Arc.
NOTEBOOK: How did you direct a child to talk—and sing—about inner faith and spiritual struggle?
DUMONT: It’s exactly that: it’s a little hot, flaming hot, and how it reacted to Péguy's poetry. What I found fascinating is to see how she would react to Péguy's poetry when she was saying it and how extraordinary it was—how fascinating, obscure, and very clear at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell us a bit more about the author Charles Péguy, whose work you adapted for this picture?
DUMONT: Charles Péguy’s a poet from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, and he was a socialist, he was an atheist, and then he changed and became a Christian, a nationalist, and a Catholic. In the end he was even illuminated in mystique. And so he’s very connected to Joan of Arc, in fact, they have a strong connection. He’s the Joan of Arc of poetry. When he was 20, he wrote a play, a theatre play, which is divided into three parts, and the first one is “Do Re Mi,” the second is “Battles,” and the third is “Du Monde,” which I decided to adapt into a film. And so his poetry is totally illuminated, sometimes you feel a bit...not knowing exactly how to react, because it’s so beautiful. And so I thought the only way to transpose this was through music. To make us understand, in what poetic trance we could get thanks to music. And then the younger generations can access this, can connect this, can identify this because they might have a harder time with Péguy.
NOTEBOOK: What was your experience like collaborating with a music composer and dance choreographer?
DUMONT: Because Péguy’s poetry is very beautiful, but it’s a bit obscure at times. And so we needed something to counterpart this, and this is music in fact, so the electro-pop music is balancing the strength of the poetic work.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you relocate Joan’s story to your regular shooting location in Northern France?
DUMONT: Well, it’s a myth, so it’s of course set in nature, but at the same time in the marvelous, so anywhere beautiful would do the job of showing how marvelous it is. Filming on the shore means being on the verge of something, and poetry is on the verge of heaven, so there are connections, many connections that can be drawn.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your soundtrack in the film? How much of the singing was recorded in sync sound, and was the wind and sheep sounds we hear recorded on location?
DUMONT: I love musicals and especially American musicals, better than even French musicals, and the tradition in musicals is to do lip sync, but I didn’t want to do that—I wanted direct sound. So this is what we did. We had music played in their ears, and so they would sing a capella and this allowed for other sounds to be heard—so the sound of wind, the sound of sheep, even the sound of clothing brushed and the sound of the sea. And all of this is rendering nature, so to speak. You need something temporal to mean the atemporal. And the little girl, she sang sometimes very well and sometimes not so well, but it doesn’t matter.
NOTEBOOK: Is that actually Joan's heartbeat from the mic? That was amazing, I’ve never heard anything like that in cinema
DUMONT: Yes [smiling], c'est son direct.
NOTEBOOK: Young Joan is played by two actresses, one younger and one older. How did you cast these two actresses?
DUMONT: So in Péguy’s work, there are two time periods: first she’s 13, then 16. I first found the older one, the 13-year-old, but she was too old, I thought. So I wanted to have a younger one, so that’s when I found Lise, who’s younger. I did that because I wanted to show the change between the little girl to an older girl, who eventually would be ready to go to war, so this would be the change between childhood to teens. So the little one is very moving, very touching with all her flaws, but after an hour of time of film, I thought that I had reached the end of this, and so I needed to move forward, move further, and have the bigger Jeanne. And she says at the very end, 'Don’t call me Jeannette anymore, call me Jeanne.' And so she’s ready, she’s the new Joan of Arc, ready to go to war. As I said at the beginning, from the little heart of the young girl to the flaming heart of Joan of Arc.
NOTEBOOK: This film is filled with numerous purposeful “errors”: faltering voices, actors slipping, looking at the camera. Why include such things?
DUMONT: Because I want to fight against the idea of perfection emboldened by Hollywood or Italian painting versus Flemish painting. Because in Hollywood or Italian painting they do it so perfectly that it’s ideal. Whereas Flemish painting is painting man, as it is, with all it’s imperfection. Because for Hollywood and Italian painting, God is a hero. Whereas in Flemish painting, God is man. That makes all the difference in the world. And so this is what I fight: Hollywood films and Hollywood ideas of films, or even mainstream French films, and this is what Bergson says: being is the process of being. And so this is the Hollywood archetype. And I fight against this. What I like—what I love—is nature as it is becoming nature. As it is in the process of being. And so perfection is sometimes switching to imperfection, becoming perfection again. This is the trajectory that I like, and so I like accidents, I like grittiness, I like when it’s not exactly smooth—because that’s life. So this is why when I did The Life of Jesus, I filmed a very ordinary man—who’s not very good either—who’s becoming God, or in the process of becoming God or quite. Not quite. So this is why when the little girl speaks to God she looks at the audience—at you—because there is no God. You are God.
NOTEBOOK: Joan can also be associated with a nationalist, militarist concept of France. How do you relate your Joan to the France of today?
DUMONT: Yes, so it’s through a nation that you get to the universal. Péguy is not a nationalist, and Joan of Arc isn’t either. She just wants to save the damned people around her so she has a much bigger vision than that and she cannot be reduced to a nationalist way of thinking. And she’s doing it at her current time, so helping people in her country. It’s a universal thought, it’s not a thought that can be reduced to a nationalist way of thinking. She loves her nation and that goes through that—loving your nation. And in fact, I can love France and thanks to my love of nation I can love other people around me. And so you need to love your own country. This is where the far-right people stop, they only see that part of it. Whereas Péguy says you need to go further; in fact, he’s a humanist, not a nationalist. You can find the real in the local situation.
NOTEBOOK: The figure of Joan carries a lot of historical and spiritual weight. How did you work with your two non-professional actresses to evoke this character?
DUMONT: So I chose someone very ordinary, someone in her own idiosyncrasy, in its own particular being. And so it’s just as you plant a seed in the earth and it grows. But I need her as an opposing force for me to manage to do what I want to do. So she has a body, she has a concreteness and that’s serving the creation of Joan of Arc. I don’t want professional actors, because they’re a blank page, and they can do whatever you want them to do. But I need someone to be existing, physically-speaking, so that we can build this. So thanks to her shortcomings, sometimes she forces me to build this character and I’m using the same technique which I used earlier, and I put Péguy’s words in her mouth and so this little girl is forming into Joan of Arc thanks to the miracle of cinema and film.

This interview was originally filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017. Watch it here.

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