Joan of Arc has been so thoroughly explored across decades of cinema that it’s hard to imagine room for a fresh take. But Bruno Dumont, one of France’s most audacious provocateurs behind the camera, wouldn’t even bother without finding his own way in. “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc” explores the formative years of the 15th century French martyr through the most unlikely medium imaginable: heavy metal music.
However, characterizing this minimalist gimmick as a “musical” doesn’t even begin to convey its bizarre nature. Dumont’s story unfolds against two time periods — one, as an adolescent Jeanette grapples with a crisis of faith and ponders how she can help her struggling people, and another years later as the teen decides to leave her rural village of Domremy to save France from an English invasion. But it’s not really a story so much as a series of hard-rocking melodies by French death metal rocker IGORR; the songs are delivered by amateur performers with ironic distance, and set against a gorgeous desert landscape where you’d never expect to see pious figures in medieval wear head-banging to distorted chords. But that’s “Jeanette” in a nutshell.
Once the premise settles in, “Jeanette” doesn’t push the material much further, and the movie’s repetitive quality has the odd effect of normalizing its outrageous approach. Fortunately, IGORR’s soundtrack is a competent, album-length range of soulful declarations. More importantly, Dumont is fresh from his bigger, wackier surrealistic effort “Slack Bay,” and knows exactly what he’s doing, so no matter its peculiar qualities, “Jeanette” is a prankish exploration of real ideas from a world-class filmmaker who knows how to deliver a well-timed lark as much as a sophisticated drama (as he did most recently with the crime investigation miniseries “Li’l Quinquin”). If “Jeanette” is a B-side to Dumont’s more layered achievements, it’s still unquestionably his voice.
The movie opens in 1425, as young Jeanette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, like all of the cast, a nonprofessional) wanders a vacant stream, tending to nearby sheep, and slowly approaches the camera humming descriptions of her spiritual troubles. Adapting text from Charles Péguy’s early 20th-century novels, Dumont refashions them into angry, soulful lyrics that take on new dimensions of frustration when Jeanette delivers them in minor key verses. “Fourteen centuries of Christianity and yet there is nothing but perdition,” she moans. “If only we could see the sunrise of your reign.” Jeanette skips around in the sand, bemoans her mother’s death at the hands of marauders with longtime pal Hauviette, and eventually engages in a deadpan dance with a pair of wide-eyed nuns.
At some point, Jeanette’s uncle shows up, agreeing to keep Joan’s mounting desire a secret, and raps — yes, raps — about the struggles of their people. In every instance, the characters dance around and speak with the unprofessional cadences of a high school play, to the point where it can feel as though Dumont is daring viewers to reject his approach outright. But at its best, the movie also hints at the possibility that it’s obvious artifice is the point.
By injecting contemporary sounds and disjointed performances into a tableaux where they don’t belong, the movie functions as a keen exploration of the way historical distance makes ancient events seem unfamiliar. To that end, the movie bears some resemblance to Luis Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert,” which follows a pious nomad in the 4th century before inadvertently leaving him in the present day. “Jeanette” doesn’t stretch that far, but it wrestles near-biblical material with a similar eagerness to breach its boundaries. That much remains clear even when the shtick starts to drag. And even though it doesn’t aim for outright comedy, Dumont doesn’t deny the material some levity. In one seemingly consequential scene near the end, for no apparent reason, a character abruptly falls off a horse. It’s a welcome reminder that even if Dumont takes the subject matter seriously, he’s also in on the joke.
“Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Directors Fortnight. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.