Dumont explores his inner child

Joan of Arc director on comedy, tragedy and the soul of France

by Richard Mowe

Lise Leplat Prudhomme as Joan of Arc. Bruno Dumont: 'It may seem anachronistic to choose a young girl but it makes the audience confront their own preconceptions and to go deeper'
Lise Leplat Prudhomme as Joan of Arc. Bruno Dumont: 'It may seem anachronistic to choose a young girl but it makes the audience confront their own preconceptions and to go deeper' Photo: Unifrance
As a director and as a person Bruno Dumont - whose film Joan Of Arc reaches UK streaming services this week - has lightened up considerably since the austere days of Humanity and Flanders, which both scooped the Cannes Film Festival’s grand prix awards in 1999 and 2006 respectively. Although he has been invited more than eight times to take part in the Festival’s various sections (Official Selection, Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight) frequently he receives a rough ride from the critics and the public while his admirers will defend him to the hilt.

He directed his first feature film at the age of 38: The Life Of Jesus (1996), which was shot in his home town of Bailleul, near Lille. It was much acclaimed in the Director's Fortnight, winning a Caméra d'Or Special Mention. The director returned to Cannes in 1999, in Competition, with Humanity, when, as well as the Grand Prix, the film scored a double best performance prize for two of his non-professional actors.

Dumont moved away from northern France to shoot Twentynine Palms in the Californian desert, a road movie that was selected for the Venice Mostra in 2003. In 2006 there was the other Grand Prix for Flanders, a harsh film about the devastation caused by war, reminders of which were all around the area in which he grew up.

Bruno Dumont: 'The chemistry of a film is so paradoxical, contradictory, falsified and true'
Bruno Dumont: 'The chemistry of a film is so paradoxical, contradictory, falsified and true' Photo: Unifrance
We’re met at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in January to talk about Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), the second of two films adapted from the writings of the poet Charles Péguy and both featuring the music of the singer Christophe. The first, Jeannette: The Childhood Of Joan Of Arc, was treated in the form of a rock opera and presented in the Directors’ Fortnight two years ago.

Dumont has had a change of tone and style, choosing to give a more contemporary and universal cloak to the oft-told story that continues to exert an enduring fascination for the French. Audaciously, he decided to keep the youthful and previously untried Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who was 10 at the time of the shoot of Jeannette and thought she was auditioning as an extra. She has acquired a new assurance and maturity as the Maid of Orléans, facing up to the exigencies of political power, the Church and the Law.

“Charles Péguy is an author that I discovered quite recently and I was very impressed by his writing, especially its song-like aspects and musicality,” Dumont said. “I find he is a very powerful writer and a great poet, but can also be a bit obscure. So I tried to make it easier to penetrate. But then I am not afraid of obscurity either…”

Péguy experienced a spiritual renaissance of his own late in life, investing in Roman Catholic theology after years of professed agnosticism. Two of Péguy’s plays, Jeanne d’Arc (1897) and Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc (1910), form the backbone of Dumont’s narrative.

Prudhomme, who had played the younger of the two Jeannes in the previous film, was now 12 years old. “Perhaps unconsciously I did not want to work with a Jeanne d’Arc who was the right age. In the end I opted again for Lise. When we saw her during the tests wearing her small suit of armour the choice seemed to be obvious. Most actors who play Jeanne d’Arc are never the right age.

"Ingrid Bergman was 40 when she took the role in 1948 for Victor Fleming while Renée Falonetti was 35 in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion Of Joan of Arc. The question is not of historical accuracy and shows that the surface appearance is not important. We are talking about something a lot deeper so it may seem anachronistic to choose a young girl but it makes the audience confront their own preconceptions and to go deeper.”

Bruno Dumont on his star Lise Leplat Prudhomme: 'She was able to reach the heart of Jeanne but behind that is our own hearts and minds'
Bruno Dumont on his star Lise Leplat Prudhomme: 'She was able to reach the heart of Jeanne but behind that is our own hearts and minds' Photo: Unifrance

Dumont admitted that some of the cast who included the veteran Fabrice Luchini (playing King Charles VII) were sceptical at the choice. “When they started playing opposite her they saw the impact of a girl like that standing up to the adults and they realised she was putting it all in to sharper relief by showing determination, strength, rigour and intransigence. She was able to reach the heart of Jeanne but behind that is our own hearts and minds. She was no longer a girl, but a real woman. There is something about Jeanne d’Arc that is obscure on the inside and mysterious … that is her fascination but she is also disturbing through her vision, her clairvoyance, and her intelligence. She is a real cinema character - like super woman.”

He suggests that he has no concerns about anachronism or historical truth. “We are in a timeless world and the film is historically inaccurate. Everything is wrong, one might say. Because I only seek equivalences: Joan carries a timeless truth and I remain captivated by the power she can still deploy today, something that I did not measure before. The chemistry of a film is so paradoxical, contradictory, falsified and true! Charles Péguy says somewhere that we are all 12 years old. Definitively. Subsequently, it is the little child inside us who sees himself getting older. When I go to the movies, I’m 12 years old and there’s always this little guy inside me who’s watching.”

Dumont as part of his lightening up process embarked on a French murder mystery series Li'l Quinquin, made for the Arte TV network but screened in Cannes six years ago. It delivered him a prime time audience which enthused him so much he resurrected the same characters four years later for Quinquin and the Extra-Humans. “It was great to come back to these characters again,” he said fondly. “Now I have opened the floodgates I can see more clearly the contrasts between tragedy and comedy and I am interested to from one to the other. It was a kind of revelation to discover humour in my work.”

Léa Seydoux appears as a celebrity TV journalist in Bruno Dumont’s new film On A Half Clear Morning
Léa Seydoux appears as a celebrity TV journalist in Bruno Dumont’s new film On A Half Clear Morning Photo: Indie Sales
He has recently completed a new film On a Half Clear Morning with Léa Seydoux playing a celebrity journalist juggling career and a personal life whose existence is overturned by a freak car accident. It also features stand-up comedian Blanche Gardin and Benoît Magimel. “It shows the complexity of having too much information with fake news versus real news,” he said.

The director has no issues with platforms such as Netflix proving competition for cinemas. “We mustn’t forget that there are a lot of banal films playing on cinema screens whereas I have seen some really good things on Netflix who seem to find space for auteur films. Let’s start a campaign to ban bad films from cinemas,” he said beaming.

Joan of Arc from New Wave Films is released straight to digital platforms from 19 June.

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