Bruno Dumont’s movies linger somewhere between deadpan comedy and bleak existential yearning, an uneasy combo that often makes them hard to classify. From the nomadic supernatural traveler who haunts the French countryside in “Outside Satan,” to the bumbling cops investigating a seaside community in the miniseries “Li’l Quinquin,” Dumont excels at absurdist storytelling that wanders down strange pathways that either end in oddball punchlines or take a sharp turn into profundity. Not every curveball lands, but Dumont’s eerie, dreamlike storytelling has made him one of France’s most endearing and unpredictable filmmakers of the past 20-odd years.
All of which means that “Joan of Arc,” the filmmaker’s bizarre and inquisitive look at the famed young martyr in the final years of her war against the British, benefits from a working familiarity of the vision behind the camera. Technically, it’s as much a part of a growing Dumont franchise as “Li’l Quinquin,” as “Joan of Arc” follows his 2017 “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc,” both chronologically and in terms of the Brechtian devices used to find new pathways into a centuries-old tale.
In “Jeanette,” Dumont constructed an ironic musical with heavy metal songs transposed against a drab countryside setting. By comparison, the latest entry is a daring return to relative normalcy — but, well, normalcy is quite relative when it comes to Dumont. With the exception of one very peculiar song inserted late in the drama, “Joan of Arc” unfolds as quiet, meditative character study, with the extraordinary Lise Leplat Prudhomme reprising her role as the child martyr and giving it a soulful centerpiece. Poor Joan has been suffering through the cinema ever since Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in 1928, and Prudhomme’s stern, battle-ready glare gives it fresh power.
That’s just enough to salvage the movie from an alienating and cerebral style as it lurches through one slow-burn act after another. “Joan of Arc” veers from haunting to listless and back again as it drifts through a series of minimalist set pieces, staged in monotonous terms that often contradict cinematographer David Chambille’s riveting visual tapestry, which starts in a sun-blasted desert and ends with the cavernous center of the Amiens Cathedral for the famed trial.
Viewed on mute, “Joan of Arc” might come across as a fairly traditional period drama, despite a sparsity of battle scenes and the occasional moment where its pint-sized heroine glares right into the camera. But Dumont has instead scripted the story as a pileup of stanzas, in a way that suggests that no measure of representing this mythified past can fully extricate it from the spiritual connotations it has accrued with time. That fits with Dumont’s underlying source, Charles Péguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” and helps explain his motives. “Joan of Arc” doesn’t tell a story so much as it ruminates on what made that story intriguing in the first place.
Despite a hefty 137-minute running time, the narrative of “Joan of Arc” is relatively slight. It opens in 1429, in the aftermath of several victories, with Joan eager to continue her divine mission of booting the British and Burgundians from the Valois kingdom. The leisurely first act bears the closest resemblance to “Jeanette,” in that it finds Joan and a handful of adult followers basically standing around the barren landscape talking through their priorities.
Yet just when it seems as if the movie could linger indefinitely in this no-man’s land, “Joan of Arc” transitions to the character’s imprisonment and subsequent trial. Viewers who commit to the challenge of the movie’s initial passage may find themselves drifting into the center of Dumont’s spell, as the movie crawls toward a fascinating rumination on the character’s persistence under duress. Prudhomme’s immature features make her a fascinating entry point for exploring Joan’s mystique. The real Joan was 19 years old when she faced down Pierre Cauchon over accusations of heresy, but the decision to cast a much younger actress’ face helps emphasize the sheer unconventional nature of the drama at hand — a teenager confronting the power structures of Europe, guided by the grace of God and unwilling to go down without a fight.
“Joan of Arc” regards this takeaway with deep intellectual curiosity, a decision that makes for a fascinating viewing experience but limits its emotional impact. By the time French songwriter Christophe — in a bit part as one of the many crusty old men tasked with deciding Joan’s fate — stands up to deliver a droning song about how they’re all about to send her to hell, Dumont’s naughtier instincts get the best of him. Yes, there’s an admirable subversive energy to this kind of non-sequitur twist, but it’s at odds with the grounded performance at the movie’s center and the more complex ideas that it conveys.
Still, as with “Jeanette,” there’s a lingering sense throughout “Joan of Arc” that the whole thing is supposed to be a grand lark. Dumont regards history as a focal point for national identity, finding France’s leadership rooted in dry pontification and meandering religious fervor. He gives us a complex world so keen on taking itself seriously that it becomes parody, leaving only Joan’s stone-faced expression to point to a higher truth.
“Joan of Arc” is available exclusively through Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema on May 22, followed by additional availability at the Acropolis Cinema and other venues on May 29.