SPUNKY YOUNG WOMEN FACING UNCERTAIN FUTURES leave their marks on this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center—two in the smashing directorial debuts by Léonor Serraille (Montparnasse Bienvenüe ) and Léa Mysius (Ava ), and a third in Bruno Dumont’s refreshingly offbeat Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017). Ava is about a thirteen-year-old girl (Noée Abita) whose imminent blindness prompts her to seize what comes with reckless abandon before darkness sets in. At first a pouty Mouchette, she takes up with Juan (Juan Cano), a migrant worker evading the law, and rides off to an unknown fate.
Montparnesse Bienvenüe is an indelible portrait of a young woman named Paula, who, following a breakup with a celebrated photographer, literally flails her way across Paris’s left bank, homeless and jobless, and through one hopeless situation after another, assuming fake identities and lying, mostly to herself, about who she is and where she fits. From the first shot of her as a screaming wretch banging on a metal door, demanding entry, the film is driven by the combined force of this down-but-not-out creature and her gut-wrenching embodiment by formidable newcomer Laetitia Dosch. Dosch’s performance is nothing less than astonishing, moving with fluid angst from pathetic waif to vengeful fury, jilted lover to abandoned daughter, playful babysitter to sensitive psychologist. The mood shifts are as credible as her animated facial expressions, all as revealing as they are deceiving. Dosch’s tour de force is matched and counterpointed by Serraille’s directorial subtlety, free of faux sentiment as well as political correctness, and so savvy and nuanced in its framing and cutting that more than once it brought to mind such formidable masters of ellipses as Robert Bresson.
It’s hard to imagine another French director, or even any filmmaker, who could pull off a heavy-metal musical about the young Joan of Arc other than the predictably unpredictable Dumont. But Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc is an eccentric, entrancing, and altogether reverent treatment—with a score courtesy of Igorrr (aka Gautier Serre)—of the legendary jeune fille. As he did in The Life of Jesus (1997), Dumont fuses the sacred and the mundane to conjure a vision that brings the supernatural down to earth even as it revivifies its tantalizing mysteries. Far from the sublime precincts of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Dumont gives us a precocious child who is far too obsessed with the fate of her country than any eight-year-old should be, but who still exudes the fervor and devotion we associate with this historical figure. It’s not until the film’s last third that we meet the teenage curmudgeon who, against all reason, pushes her way into the spotlight, persuading hardened soldiers, wily churchmen, and corrupt statesmen that she is destined to save France and should immediately lead an army against the English and later have the Dauphin crowned king.
As bold as it is lively and sweet, the film sticks pretty close to traditional accounts, but rather than belabor them with sanctimonious gravitas, it adopts a lilting, contemporary spirit, turning Joan’s prayers into song and her resolve into dance. Think Hamilton—medieval style. Though title cards identify the era—Lorraine, France, 1425—production design is virtually nil. Most of the story is set outdoors in a lovely, isolated area bordering the river Meuse, where Joan tends sheep and spends her days musing over the country’s ills, virtually alone but for the occasional visitor. Her frame of mind, as well as the film’s perspective, is established in the first shot. Wading through the dazzling blue of the river, she approaches the foreground, singing her daily prayers (a Hail Mary and an Our Father) until, in close-up, she pauses and looks directly into the camera, as if awaiting some response. It comes, as it will again and again, from the comic but quite natural baa-a-a of a sheep offscreen, after which Joan, satisfied, continues on her way. Staring offscreen, toward the sky, which often serves as a countershot, we get the point. She is in touch with the divine, as assured of its presence and the means through which it speaks as she is of the land and river in her midst. There is no contradiction between nature and the ineffable—an equation, in fact, that was used to mock her visionary claims during her trial years later.
Dumont’s baa-a-a’s are as clever as they are whimsical, allowing Joan’s inner convictions to blend seamlessly with her environment, leaving questions of the possibility of her visions and voices unaddressed. This is also true of the witty scene in which she comes upon Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael, whom we see only after Joan’s concentrated gaze conjures them into view. Suspended aloft in a tree and swaying to the jagged rhythms of Igorrr’s score, the three saints mouth the words that will determine Joan’s fate, though they are spoken aloud only by Joan. When Joan doubts that she is the one chosen to lead the army, Saint Michael draws his sword as if intuiting her thoughts. And when she finally embarks on her journey, we watch the mature and single-minded young woman mount a horse and, led by her perplexed but compliant uncle, ride down the same river—reportedly the oldest in the world and the site of a decisive battle against the Germans in World War II—into the greater world, reversing the film’s opening shot. If Dumont’s film is an enchanting fairy tale, it is no less credible than Joan’s story, one that has transfixed writers as cynical as Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw.
“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs March 8 through March 18, 2018, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.