A while ago, asked to name a film set in the Middle Ages with a persuasively medieval spirit, I settled on Eric Rohmer’s charming 1978 oddity Perceval le Gallois. Based on a 12th-century French Arthurian poem, it’s a musical of sorts, with sung narration from onstage minstrels playing medieval tunes, and ending with a startling eight-minute musical Passion play.
I have never seen anything like Rohmer’s Perceval. That includes Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc — improbably enough, another French musical about an innocent young medieval hero, adapted from poetic writings and prominently contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus in song.
Yet Jeannette too offers a medieval vision that is astonishing in its challenge to modern sensibilities, even if the literary source in this case is from around the turn of the 20th century — the writings of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy — and the eclectic music, blending electronica, Baroque themes and guitar-shredding hard rock with other textures, is jarringly anachronistic.
Jeannette’s medieval vision is expressed, above all, not by the saint herself, nor in the relatively brief visitation of silent heavenly figures whose message Joan interprets for us, but in the ecstatic mystical discourse of a young nun played by a pair of stone-faced twins (stay with me) who also appear as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret, alongside St. Michael. You probably already know whether or not this movie is for you, don’t you?
There is nothing in the opening minutes to foreshadow all this weirdness. The film opens with an extended shot of a stream in the French countryside (a title informs us that it is summer 1425) in which 9-year-old Jeanette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) appears, artlessly singing a capella, offering prayers to her patron saint John and the Holy Trinity, as a pious young peasant girl might do.
Her song quickly takes an unsettling turn, though, as the words of the Lord’s Prayer are subverted into an elegy:
Our Father who art in heaven
Your name is so far from being hallowed
And your reign from coming …
Jeanette is deeply troubled by the state of the world, by suffering and especially war, and by the damnation of souls. In a conflicted, Christological expression of the mystery of evil, she laments that the world has seen 14 centuries of Christianity since God sent his beloved Son to suffer and die, not to mention the saints, and yet “what reigns on the face of the earth is perdition.” Over and over Jeanette returns to the haunting refrain, “And there is nothing; there is never anything.”
Jeannette is a dialogue, and a mutual cross-examination, not only among the main characters of the drama, and above all between man and God, but also between the poet Péguy and the filmmaker Dumont, and even between Péguy the Socialist unbeliever of 1897 and Péguy the believing Catholic of 1910. It is also, of course, a dialogue between both artists and Joan herself (a dialogue some might consider one-sided, though Péguy might have demurred, at least in 1910).
The narration in verse has been set to music adapted from authentic medieval melodies, and is sung in the original old French by a chorus of minstrels playing traditional instruments, as well as by the players themselves. The players’ bright costumes and the overtly stagey sets — a grove of abstract sculpture-like trees for a forest; simple façade castles built of painted wood — were inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.