Jeannette: A Review

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Jeannette (2018) is a musical from the French director and screenwriter Bruno Dumont. I previously posted about the release of the film, and the prose poem it is based on.  It had a short run in theaters, and is now available on Amazon Prime for free. It is an adaptation of Charles Peguy’s  prose poem The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and a much earlier play Peguy wrote about Joan before his conversion. It is in French with English subtitles.

I am not familiar with Dumont’s work, but I gather he is well-known for creating experimental or avant-garde cinema. His films apparently provoke strong reaction, both negative and positive, but he seems to be generally acknowledged for having technical skill and ingenuity.

He continues his approach in this film. He relies on relatively unknown or untrained actors, including several children, to deliver Peguy’s poetry. The most significant choice was to adapt Peguy’s work into a musical format. The characters sing many of the lines, and engage in free-form dance. The singing is accompanied by contemporary music, often electronica or metal.

Mr. Dumont appears to take the material seriously, not ironically, and Peguy’s poetry is spoken  with conviction.  This is not Mr. Dumont’s first film about religious themes, as he has previously adapted the life of a medieval Christian mystic into the film Hadewijch.

The film is organized into two acts. In the first, we are introduced to a very young Jeannette, about age 10. She is experiencing a spiritual crisis as a result of the 100 Years War, offers her life and suffering to God in atonement for the souls of the damned, and receives a mystical vision.  In the second act, we see Jeanette at about age 16. She has delayed carrying out her mission out of uncertainty, and fear of leaving her family, and must make a decision about obeying the will of God in her life.

The shots of the French countryside and the characters are very pleasing to the eye. But I have to admit, reluctantly, that I was sometimes bored and relatively unmoved by the singing and dancing. It just did not work for me. Mysticism and contemplation, as best I have read and experienced, is usually an event of quiet, calm and stillness. I found the combination of Peguy’s poetry with song and dance too distracting. This may simply reflect my personal limitations in processing too many different forms of stimulation. By way of contrast, Roger Ebert gave the film high marks.  I might have more enjoyed a Terrence Malick style adaptation of the material, with voiceover narration by Joan, long shots of nature, etc.

Mr. Dumont and his studio were happy enough with Jeannette that a sequel has been approved, and begun filming.  It will focus on her period as a soldier and perhaps include her martyrdom. It looks like he will use the child actress from the first act to play Joan again. I will be interested to learn what he bases it on. Peguy did write a sequel play/poem to The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, but it was unpublished at the time of his death, and has never been translated into English.

If you have Amazon Prime, and are a believer, it’s probably worth watching the opening few minutes to see if the film captures your imagination. Peguy’s work is important theologically, as he was a big influence on Von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speyr and other Catholics I write about at this blog. Pope Francis apparently reads him as well.

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