Notes on “Joan the Maid”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


I can’t think of a movie that feels more authentically Medieval than Jacques Rivette’s 1994 “Joan the Maid,” an interpretation of the Joan of Arc story in two very long parts. In it, Rivette, always attentive to the mind-altering qualities of movies, coaxes the viewer into the mind-state of the Middle Ages. The editing and imagery slow you down and ease you into the past. The movie is supremely straightforward, like one of Rossellini’s historical pictures, but Rivette is a more assured stylist than Rossellini, and he achieves memorable effects through panning, editing, and elision; on several occasions I gasped in response to a cut or an image. If the movie can be said to have a theme, it concerns the interplay of the natural and the mystical. Rivette, something of a mystic himself, sees the latter as being inherent in the former. Sandrine Bonnaire’s very naturalistic Joan acquires an aura, and an army, almost imperceptibly. We accept it as it’s happening, but at the movie’s end, when she’s shackled alone in a cell, it seems like a miracle. By that time this young woman has assumed an iconographic quality; she’s vulnerable yet imperishable. How was this transmutation effected? Joan herself seems unsure. Bonnaire gives a performance of impressive physical assuredness; on more than one occasion it made me think of Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet. Sprinkled among the scenes of battle, encampment, and court doings are what might be described as filmed paintings. Cinematographer William Lubtchansky provides genre scenes devoted to activities like horseshoeing and hair grooming, and his pekid springtime landscapes often recall Fouquet and the Limbourg brothers. There is even a kind of history painting: the anointing of Charles VII at Reims. It plays out in real time, its Catholicism seeming all the more meaningful for its bejeweled esotericism. The movie’s second portion, subtitled “The Prisons,” is close to Rivette’s 1966 “The Nun,” which is to say it’s a Mizoguchian treatment of the theatrics of female martyrdom. The picture’s most novel device is a series of testimonies by the story’s principal players (all except Joan), in which each is presented in the manner of a modern interview subject. It allows Rivette to vault over large chunks of story without resorting to a narrator. The interrogatory quality of this material may be a reference to Dreyer’s and Bresson’s versions of the Joan story, but it also seems like Rivette’s attempt to reconcile these miraculous events with their human participants. The interviewees seem on guard, perhaps a little defensive, as though they don’t quite believe their own stories.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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1 Response to Notes on “Joan the Maid”

  1. Hugh Mann says:

    Amazing how you can date pretty much any film set in the past. Occasionally the male styling is neutral/timeless, but never the female. Even if they’re in Elizabethan dress or wearing animal skins, they can’t resist using today’s cosmetic style (and often hair too).

    (I rather like the 60s Dench and Eileen Atkins St Joans, which go for the Julie Driscoll look – or did Julie copy them. Gemma Arterton does the same in the recent version, but the lipstick and eyes are current).


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