Monday, April 5, 2010
Joan the Maid I: The Battles
Joan the Maid is Jacques Rivette's five-hour, two-part portrayal of the life and death of Joan of Arc, in which Rivette strips away much of the epic legend surrounding this figure and makes her a quieter, more graceful kind of hero. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, Rivette's Joan is a simple country girl, raised far from the centers of power, unable even to read or write; she says that she would be more content sewing at home with her mother than having to thrust herself into battle in service to God and country. She is a simple girl driven by something mysterious within her, a power and force that emanates from her during every second of Bonnaire's tremendous performance. Bonnaire's Joan is quiet, reserved, and self-assured, at least in public, though in private moments she often struggles with God's will, utterly confident that she has a purpose but not always sure exactly how to go about it. It is no mystery, though, why she motivates people, why she is so eagerly accepted as a savior, as a woman of God: her eyes flash with reserves of inner strength, and her hard peasant's face is a mask of determination.
The first half of Rivette's two-part epic is The Battles, an account of Joan's ascendancy to the right hand of France's king, the dauphin (André Marcon), leading France's army to lift the English siege on Orléans. Despite its secondary title, this film is primarily concerned with battles of words rather than battles between physical armies. Joan must fight every step of the way: to convince the local captain to provide an escort for her to go see the king, to convince the king and his advisers to trust her, to convince a council of holy men that she is inspired by God and not the Devil, to convince the army's leaders to stop delaying and follow her advice. Rivette thus presents a Joan who's very much worldly, prosaic, ordinary in so many ways. She is dressed simply and exists in a very stripped-down, minimal world, captured in Rivette's simple but somehow beautiful images: images that show the real world as it is, without adornment, a physical shell for the hard spirituality of Joan.
She makes grand pronouncements but is constantly confronted with worldly barriers: her army has no supplies, there are delays, when they finally attack they do so without informing her first. She is therefore constantly proved wrong in her predictions about when the English will be routed, when her army will at last be victorious. She cannot help it; she is limited by the men who are with her, by mere flesh and blood, by the need for food and arms. Her spiritual war must be joined to a physical one in order to mean anything of substance. Rivette, too, is every bit as much concerned with physicality. He dedicates numerous scenes to matters of the simple, the routine. These people are concerned with budgets, with provisions: even the king must borrow money from his wealthy backers. In one lengthy scene, a military commander haggles with a town official over the money that the army must borrow to pay for the town's defense; it comes down, ultimately, to bargaining from 300, to 250, to 275. Simple things, small amounts of money, a few coins here and there.
Simple things, too, like sex, like the way two soldiers in Joan's army stop to discuss having their way with her at night, then regret even talking about it later, moved by her angelic countenance and her graceful way of convincing everyone she meets, eventually, that she comes from God. Later, Joan will be subjected, offscreen, to the proddings of women assigned to determine if she's really a virgin or not. She will be tested, her physicality probed and deemed pure, and it's telling that Rivette does not omit such details. He's concerned with the routine, with the sequence of events: how does this myth play out, not as a myth passed down from generation to generation, but as something happening in the moment? How does Joan go from a simple country girl to the leader of an army? By slow progression, by hesitant steps forward and major setbacks and diversions. Along the way, Rivette is constantly stopping to observe what else might be going on, what might be happening at the fringes of a story like this. So while Joan meets with one of her commanders, discussing the budget, Rivette follows another soldier out the door, pursuing a townswoman who he flirts with and kisses and promises to visit later as she giggles and flirts back. Another scene presents an image of Joan not often seen: smiling and cheering as she watches some of the army's pages engaged in a mock battle by a riverside; she joins the male soldiers in cheering on her favorites, a wide grin on her usually somber face for once.
Indeed, though Joan's story is presented with the utmost seriousness and import, Rivette doesn't sacrifice his sly sense of humor to this legend's solemnity. Instead, he fills in the earthy, human details at the fringes of the myth. At one point, Joan is staying with a rural couple who are awed and maybe a little mystified by her holiness and her habit of remaining in unmoving prayer for hours or days at a time. They watch her from the next room as she prays and the wife describes, with hushed reverence, all the signs of Joan's spirituality: her flushed cheeks, her glowing eyes, her otherworldly serenity. But when her husband asks if light is emanating from her, his wife gently chides him to be reasonable: "no, it's just the lamp light." That's the way it is: miracles only go so far, and the rest is up to men, to flesh and blood. Joan's miracles are all small matters, sleights of hand that might easily go unnoticed. She changes the wind direction when the men are complaining that their boats can't bring supplies across the river, and she signifies the miracle by pointedly looking up at her banner, which is suddenly blowing in a favorable direction. Later, her primary "miracle" is to roust an exhausted army into battle by sheer force of will, by the power of her voice and example as she doesn't so much charge towards the English defenses as stumble that way, fumbling with a banner she's trying to take from a resisting footman. It's funny, even, the way a bet between two soldiers leads indirectly to Joan, almost by accident, encouraging the army to take Orléans. The footman, before rushing towards the castle, turns back and asks that his part in all this not be forgotten; he's saying it to his comrade but it might as well be directed at the camera, at Rivette, who obliges by recounting the way two soldiers goofing around helped get Joan into place for her historic moment.
There's a similar sensibility at work in other moments where Rivette lets the seams of history show. His playfulness with this material is given a self-conscious wink in the scene, tossed-off as a bit of peripheral business, where Joan's priest lifts up his robes to show that his feet are well-protected, in response to a passing soldier's mock expression of concern. When even the priest is capable of a goofy joke, Rivette is acknowledging his irreverent perspective, his emphasis on the silly, the profane, the ordinary, over the overtly mystical: it's why even his ghost stories (The History of Marie and Julien) and his magic films (Duelle) are so rooted in the everyday. His crude counterpart here is the gruff, violent soldier La Hire (Stéphane Boucher), a man renowned for his brutality in war. Before battle, he has a special private prayer to God, a plea for God to act towards him as God would like La Hire to act if their positions were reversed; it's a very personal understanding of "do unto others as you would like them to do unto you." La Hire talks to God as though they're just two guys who can maybe come to some sort of mutual understanding, and it's this disarmingly offhand approach to the spiritual and the sacred that informs Rivette's film at nearly every moment.
Even so, there's a sense of grace and beauty in his images that naturally brings the spiritual back into the film. Rivette's landscapes are awe-inspiring in a quiet, unassuming way: foggy, slightly hazy, their colors muted rather than garish, but still somehow sumptuous and beautiful. His images don't call attention to themselves, but are instead gently insistent: the blue midnight aura around Joan as she calls to her allies during a nighttime ride; the castle doors closing into blackness behind the riders as they leave on their mission; the snowy ground with patches of brown showing through; the bare, desolate rooms of sacked castles stripped of their trappings by the English invaders. So many of these images are empty or nearly empty, bathed in silence; Rivette often begins a shot before any characters have entered it, and ends it by panning away to an empty space, lingering there for a few pointed moments, preventing the narrative from ever assuming the forward momentum of the preordained. Instead, every moment is a struggle for Joan; the outcome always seems uncertain. And yet she confronts every setback with her beatific, knowing smile, a look of serenity that suggests the depth of her absolute faith. Rivette's film ends, as it must, with her victory, leaving her further travails for the second half of his epic, The Prisons.