Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc, 2017)
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
Women and Power
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is a heavy metal musical (sprinkled throughout with some pop and hip hop songs) set during the early years of Joan of Arc’s life, before she left Domremy. The film was directed by French auteur film director Bruno Dumont, and its music created by French musician Igorrr. The film has a small cast of non-professional actors, such as Lisa Leplat Prudhomme and Jeanne Voisin, who played young Joan and teenage Joan, respectively.
The film was released in 2017 and competed at the Cannes film festival. Reviews since then have landed the movie a solid 74% score on Rotten Tomatoes, though only a 39% audience rating. There’s a breath of different responses to this admittedly weird film. One reviewer from the Boston Globe said that it “…is very likely the first medieval heavy-metal musical ever to grace the silver screen. Sadly, it's not quite as fun as that sounds.”
While weird, the film is still about Joan of Arc’s childhood. How accurate is it, then? The answer is not very. Much of the movie is not based on historical fact, but rather a book written in 1897 called The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, written by Charles Peguy. Because of this book, much of the movie ignores much of even the little that we know about Joan’s childhood.
One detail the films skips out on is the burning of Domremy in 1428. Though minor, the failure to include this detail shows how the major events of Joan’s childhood that we do know about were not a big concern to the filmmaker. In fact, there is little in this movie to suggest the ongoing conflict of the Hundred Years’ War. The failure to include this begs the question: if the war has left seemingly no impact on the lives of the characters, why do they devote so much of the movie discussing it? There is a strange dissonance between these two realities in the film. In addition, the film never includes or mentions Joan’s crossdressing. Admittedly, this is likely because the movie takes place before that starts, but it is part of Joan of Arc’s most recognizable iconography, and it is not shown.
A more significant change made to the received knowledge that we have of Joan involve the voices Joan hears. In the film, she hears them when she was younger (8 years old) than she actually was (around 13 years old). But more significantly, we only see them—the Saints that famously spurred her on—once in the film. Even after they are shown, Joan’s actions do not seem influenced by Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine. Rather, she seems to want to leave Domremy of her own volition rather than because it was God’s will that she serve the King of France.
A lot of these changes can be credited to the version of Joan’s story found in Peguy’s Mystery. The book is set during Joan’s childhood, as the movie is, and is chiefly focused on questions of faith, asked through the lens of Joan of Arc’s particular brand of spirituality. These questions are covered in the film, but one question— “why is there suffering, particularly suffering caused by war?”—is often broached in the film. Peguy’s book also invents the characters of Hauvette, Joan’s friend, and Madame Gervaise, a nun who speaks with Joan about faith. The second half of the movie, which shows Joan a few years older and ready to leave Domremy, is also taken from Peguy’s work.
When the film was released in 2017 the French Presidential election was concluding. The final candidates were narrowed down to Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Marine Le Pen was the head of the party known as the National Front, a right-wing populist and nationalist party. She campaigned on promises to leave the eurozone, and was concerned with immigration and French security. Because Joan of Arc has been an important nationalistic figure for France since at least the nineteenth century, critics questioned Dumont’s characterization of Joan in his film. Dumont maintained that his Joan was not a nationalist, but rather, concerned with “saving the damned people around her.” This idea seems to be mostly true for the first half of the film. However, in the second half, when Joan is talking to Hauvette, Hauvette says that Scottish reinforcements are coming to help fight the English. Joan’s response to this is in direct conflict with Dumont’s idea of his Joan. Joan expresses concern with the Scottish coming to France, calling them “10,000 more foreigners devouring France.” This line implies strong anti-immigration and pro-nationalist sentiments that are currently popular in French right-wing politics (exemplified by Le Pen). Dumont seems to want it both ways.
The film’s presentation of gender is worth noting, only because the film completely ignores Joan’s gender, which is central to her story in so many other movies. When Joan tells her friend Hauvette that a French girl will save France, Hauvette completely disregards this comment. Later, when Joan is speaking with Hauvette again, she tells her friend that she has found a warlord to fight the English (meaning, her).
The film’s lack of gender politics highlights its chief concern: the religious and ecstatic devotion of its subjects. Given its tone and take on the Joan of Arc story, is the film sincere or ridiculous? The answer is unclear, but one reviewer from the New York Times said that the movie makes “no distinction between religious ecstasy and that experience in certain contemporary contexts of music and ritual.” By this, the reviewer meant that the film does not differentiate between spiritual ecstasy and that which comes from listening to music. Instead of Joan simply asking questions and contemplating the nature of God, she sings and dances and headbangs.
May 4, 2018 (USA, limited)
Kimstim Films (distributor)
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)
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