Tuesday 24 August 2010

Jeanne La Pucelle, Jacques Rivette

Jeanne La Pucelle is a work of abundant light and luxurious space. Light before the sunset, the light of noon, natural light. Like all of Jacques Rivette's films it is airy, cool and elegant.*

The act of observing the slow passing of time and people in Jeanne La Pucelle is almost indistinguishable from that of observing them outside the walls of the theatre. This is because there is space enough within the story's stage for us to set up camp. Neither hurried nor ponderous, we are always ready to follow when we need to follow and wait when we need to wait.


The trembling voice of the Dauphin. Deep remorse for lewd thoughts. Bravery in battle. Like the wind the Maid is made visible in the reactions of those around her.

At first those that she meets are disdainful, confused and maybe a little afraid of her. It is her certainty, her faith in God and her unaffected humility that perturbs them, the same qualities that will eventually give them hope and reason to believe. The men around her are waiting. It is they, under siege and despondent, who pray and trust to providence. It is Jeanne who acts and offers herself as the instrument of God's work. She has a purpose and a plan. She wakes them from their lethargy, assuring them that the impasse between English and French forces can be broken.

Although she gets on well with the men, she is withdrawn. She prays in solitude and meditates within a faraway gaze. The sounds of earthly life are (figuratively) interpolated by the notes of a heavenly choir like the strains of Dvorak and Bach, the voice of God, obscured the noisy squeaks of a basketball court in Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary. Jeanne needs time to think:

   The fact is I know what I must do and sometimes I don't know how to do it

Whilst Sandrine Bonnaire's splendid performance tell us much of Jeanne, she retains a kernel of mystery. How many films would blur secondary characters to hold the heroine in sharper focus? Not here. It is rare for so many characters to become so familiar to us and so dear (diaristic entries to camera very cleverly break up the film, bring us closer to the people and elide the more mundane milestones) but in Jeanne La Pucelle they are so distinct and interesting that Jeanne's farewells feel like ours too.

All great tales shock us with the memory of their beginning, appearing so hazily on the horizon behind us that we cannot believe we were ever there. It isn't the length of the film, or the miles we cover on foot and on horseback but the people we travel with that make it into a journey.

Jeanne has a smile in her eyes that reflects both the tranquility of the divine and the unfettered amusement of a normal girl. Challenged by the highest authorities on the most profound theological matters, we still find her  swinging her legs and erupting into infectious laughter. She says that she has been sent by God, in harmony with the angels and the saints, for a special reason. She is quicker to say that she is not special. Little miracles, like the changing of the wind (above) are undemonstratively revealed. The sacrifices she makes are that of a good person who brings the good out in others (below). The women are particularly excited to be in the presence of someone they consider holy but is also a woman playing a powerful role in a man's world.


It is this reasoned passion and her humble (but in some ways, paradoxically, irreverent) devotion which shake the foundations of the Church. The Priests and the Bishops who scrutinise her, interrogate her and abuse her fear that the Devil may be in her. They despise her 'blasphemy'. Most importantly she is an enemy to their (privileged) position. As a warrior she endangers their truce with England; as a woman who refuses to submit to inferiority she pricks their bloated bigotry; as a believer who communicates intimately and directly with God she bypasses their authority and stirs their jealousies.
Their holy vestments are soiled with the grubbiest of mortal sin. They are the devils who tempt her, the men who prey upon her**:

                               You are trying very hard to seduce me

Once the Dauphin has been crowned at Reims (as she promised he would be) in a magnificent and sombre spectacle clipped from a medieval tapestry, her fate, we sense, is set and prefigured:

She no longer receives guidance from her voices, leading her into error and leaving her vulnerable to capture. The time she spends in prison is terrible. She is chained to a bed, abused, and men attempt to rape her. She renounces her crimes - one of the most heinous is to wear her hair like a man, something that visibly tickles her - because she is terrified of being burnt. In her mind she is branded by the weakness of her conviction, branded by her "peur du feu". And yet she gains the strength to no longer betray her faith.

She is tied to the stake, ghostly pale, deathly afraid. The fire burns her flesh but cannot touch her faith. She says "Jesus" once, twice, three times. The suffering is now too intense and she screams "Jesus!" and the screen goes black. With the placement of this black screen, Rivette transfigures evil. He turns the victory of death into the mercy of God: He has released her.***

* I know that it is dangerous to pigeon-hole artists. Once a film-maker's oeuvre has been pressed into a mould, the excess that doesn't fit the narrative can be scraped off and thrown away. For example Jacques Rivette's films are almost unanimously called playful, magical, puzzling and theatrical. It is hard not to go with the pattern you have spotted or the flow of the criticism one has read and subconsciously fit the film around it.

** The only bothersome aspect of the film is that the 'evil' characters are made to look stereotypically evil - drawn, scowling eyes, harsh features, disfigurements. Typage is rife throughout cinema but these choices are out of keeping with the rest of Jeanne La Pucelle.

*** The humanity of this final moment reminds me of a beautiful comment left on YouTube under the final scene of Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me by amcint01:

Movies can be made for people, places or events, but rarely do people make them for a character. The movie is for Laura Palmer, plain and simple.


  1. Ah, Stephen, this is a marvelous essay on a film that I haven't seen (I haven't seen any of Rivette's movies). I love both Dreyer's and Bresson's versions.

    "It isn't the length of the film, or the miles we cover on foot and on horseback but the people we travel with that make it into a journey." - This is the stuff that great cinema is made of. Would have to see it soon.


  2. Thank you very much, JAFB.

    As you know the Bresson film made an impact on me and so did this one. I don't like Dreyer's film but, as a fan of looking at versions of the same story, it forms a fascinating triple bill. They are all so different from each other.

    Rivette is one of my favourite film-makers and I recommend his films very highly.

  3. It's actually one of my favorite Rivettes of them all, and I am a proud owner of the lovely Region 2 Artificial Eye set, which can be bought now for about 5 pounds. at Amazon.UK. Perhaps it's my love for films about the adored French martyr (Dreyer and Bresson's interpretations especially)but this is such an austere and restrained work (the battle scenes are as restrained as you'll see in any film with this underpinning)that it's more a matter of my love and appreciation for this director's style, which here is detailed to a fault. There is a minor undercurrent of sly humor here, and the lamp light sequence is a prime example, as well as the 'irreverent perspective' that is on display in Part I. Sandrine Bonnaire is utterly extraordinary in what is surely one of the greatest performances ever rendered in any Rivette film, and one of the thespian's finest moments on screen.

    I must say this is a great piece here, and I love that opening paragraph:

    "Jeanne La Pucelle is a work of abundant light and luxurious space. Light before the sunset, the light of noon, natural light. Like all of Jacques Rivette's films it is airy, cool and elegant."

  4. Thanks very much, Sam.

    I didn't realise you were such a big fan of his films (though I remember you agreeing with me about DON'T TOUCH THE AXE).

    I found it very hard to express the atmosphere he creates so I'm glad you liked that paragraph. It is easier to analyse what we can all see.

    Yes there is a "Sly humour" and Sandrine Bonnaire is great at bringing that over - well, she's great full stop here as you say.

    I too have the Artificial Eye DVD. The image on the second part looks worse. Do you know why this is?

  5. Stephen, this is a very good observation you make, but I think it has something to do with the preponderance of outdoor work on the first part.

  6. Yes, you could be right Sam.

  7. Hey Stephen, not sure if you still receive comments but I just discovered this review right now. Last year I saw the film for the first time on the big screen in a double feature with...Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me! (Lincoln Center had a retrospective called Lynch/Rivette, of seven double features pairing their work). So that last comment, which is beautiful, really struck me. Also loved your statement about looking back on the beginning of a film from the vantage point of its ending. I feel that way about many of my favorites: transformation is something cinema does really well.