Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Joan the Maid II: The Prisons

The second half of Jacques Rivette's epic treatment of Joan of Arc, Joan the Maid II: The Prisons, picks up right where The Battles (reviewed here) left off, following the successful siege of Orléans. But where the first film ended with Joan's (Sandrine Bonnaire) moment of triumph, this second film almost immediately introduces the steps backward, the uncertainties, the political intrigues that would eventually lead to Joan's imprisonment and death. Joan had been fighting for the king, Charles (André Marcon), but Charles is increasingly pulled away from Joan, despite his faith in her, by the more worldly and secular advice of his self-interested council, La Trémoille (Jean-Louis Richard) and Regnault de Chartres (Marcel Bozonnet). Although the film's title would suggest that it is concerned wholly with Joan's trial and imprisonment, it is actually concerned with the manner in which Joan's dominance and confidence were slowly worn away, her spiritual purity betrayed by the political machinations of those more wily and manipulative than she. Despite her victories, the king's advisers immediately begin questioning her, advising the king to make peace, to cease fighting, to work towards a compromise — ideas that are foreign to Joan, secure in the knowledge that she is doing God's will.

From the beginning of the film, Rivette shows how Joan is shaken in her faith by the king's wavering, as he changes course at the whims of his council and hesitates in granting Joan the continued power to fight for him. She is essentially being tempted: to give up her fight, to give up her men's clothes and warrior ways, to rest, finally, after so many months without sleep. It is a powerful temptation, especially since Joan's own unshakable belief in King Charles turns out not to be warranted as the king fails to heed her advice any further after her initial victories pave the way for his official coronation as king of France. Such temptations are at the center of religious belief, and if the first half of Joan's story is the tale of a woman driven by religious devotion to do things seemingly beyond her station or power, the second half recounts this holy woman's struggle to maintain her belief and spiritual convictions against those who were willing to go along with her when it was convenient for them, but want her out of the way when it ceases to serve their worldly ambitions.

There is, certainly, an element of anti-feminine sentiment in Joan's fall. One recurring theme of the film is the distrust of women, especially in religious contexts. When Joan is captured by the enemy duke Philippe (Philippe Morier-Genoud), he tells her that his own religious leaders tell him that all women are monsters and temptresses, that they are not to be trusted. He claims to disagree, but in fact the reason that Joan seems to inspire so much fear — and why she is constantly insulted as being a witch, or a whore, or the Antichrist itself — is because she is a woman who refused to remain in her place, to live the simple life as a country seamstress that seemed to have been destined for her. Even the kindly women in the duke's castle, who wish only to help Joan, advise her to shed her man's clothes, to put on a dress, to let her hair grow long. At best, Joan is seen as resisting the proper place and role for a woman; at worst, her actions are seen as heretical, contrary to the church's emphasis on the behavior appropriate to men and women. The church thus assumes the task of enforcing gender roles as well as mediating spiritual matters. That's why, when Joan is tried, so much of the outrage directed at her seems to be because she is a woman, and that's also why, when she is imprisoned, one of the primary humiliations inflicted upon her is the constant threat of rape and abuse at the hands of her leering guards. She is placed back in her "proper" place, which is to be dressed in woman's clothing again and made an object of sexual desire.

Appropriately enough, this second film is more austere than its predecessor; darker, shadowier, with far fewer of the lovely outdoor vistas that so poetically set the pace in The Battles. Instead, much of the action here takes place indoors, and is enacted with words alone: words of smooth diplomacy, bargaining, backpedaling, betrayal, rather than the forceful clarity of Joan's pronouncements. Despite this, it is not a colder film; at every point, Rivette seems attuned to the human reality of his noble protagonist, to her suffering and indecision and desire to do the right thing even when confronted with those who clearly intend harm for her.

Nor does Rivette entirely abandon the streak of humanistic humor inherent in his treatment of Joan and her milieu. When Joan is with the soldiers, she is portrayed as truly one of them, despite her diminutive stature and a feminine body that no man's clothes can ever truly disguise. She laughs and jokes with them, and smiles with genuine cheer when she tells the men that they will be attacking Paris, that she wants to get close enough to see the city walls for herself. She has a disarming way about her that Bonnaire plays as a kind of innocent, childlike delight in the business of war. Rivette is also in touch, though, with other aspects of Joan's personality, especially with her gentle, quiet spirituality, reflected in the confidence she projects when she believes that she is doing God's will. In one of the film's loveliest, saddest images, Joan genuflects before an altar where she has placed her sword and armor, relinquishing them following the king's decision to agree to a truce. Joan kneels to pray, the flames flickering in the background on the tips of the candles, forming a little halo of fire around her head. It is a gorgeous image, at once spiritually inspiring and melancholy, as Joan acknowledges that her mission is being prematurely brought to an end by circumstances beyond her control.

Rivette's approach to the pomp and grandeur of organized religious ceremony is different; whereas Joan's private spirituality and whispered prayers are genuine and moving, the ritual of the church is absurd and overblown. When Charles is crowned king, in a grand ceremony within a church, each gesture is portentous and slowly drawn out, as the bishops and priests go through their elaborate rites of coronation while the organ and voices provide periodic musical punctuation. Rivette can't help but make a few humorous observations on the fringes of the scene, subtly tweaking these pompous proceedings. As the grandiose choral music soars, Rivette zooms in on the back of the church, where a line of soldiers are just barely holding back a crowd eagerly jostling for position, craning their necks to see the king get crowned, like spectators at a race track trying to get the best view. Rivette mixes the sacred and the common, contrasting the overblown religiosity of the music against the ordinary folk crammed into the church, smiling and agape as they watch this grand spectacle. The punchline comes when, at the end of the ceremony, a church official in his rich garments apologizes to some visitors that this rite wasn't more elaborate; they had to throw it together so quickly.

A darker punchline arrives when Joan's trial becomes a similarly showy affair, marked by more grand speechifying and religious rhetoric. As Joan tells the bishop who first informs her of the trial, if she's already been judged in advance, why go through with the artifice of the show trial? Just skip straight to the punishment, she spits with contempt. But that would be missing the point: to these people the artifice, the show, the ritual, the ceremony, is the essence of religion rather than mere ornamentation. Whereas Joan presents a vision of absolute faith shorn of pretension, the officials of the organized church are beholden to various political factions, possessed of various biases and ideas, enamored of ritual and procedure. Once again, the film's central conflict comes down to the tension between the worldly and the spiritual, although this time even the church itself is revealed as being on the worldly side, too tied up in politics and traditions to consider whether Joan has committed any crime besides being a woman with ideas of her own. Rivette's film, across its two halves, chronicles the tremendous strength of this woman, and her betrayal by a world not yet ready for her feats, for her will, for her daring refusal to adhere to tradition or received authority.


DavidEhrenstein said...

JOan is a woman who refuses to "remain in her place." Rivette is a filmmaker who has placed women in contexts no one else has ever imagined (Out 1, Duelle, Noroit, Secret Defense et. al.)

Ed Howard said...

Very true, David. Rivette's Joan is very much a feminist Joan, a woman who does what she wants and needs to do regardless of what social convention deems "appropriate" for women. Rivette's women are seldom, if ever, constrained by the roles and plots typically considered to be women's stories.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Even the Duchess of Langeais in Don't Touch the Axe is defying convention by playing the coquette to the hilt and beyond.

Sam Juliano said...

"Appropriately enough, this second film is more austere than its predecessor; darker, shadowier, with far fewer of the lovely outdoor vistas that so poetically set the pace in The Battles."

"Once again, the film's central conflict comes down to the tension between the worldly and the spiritual..."

Yep, I completely agree on both points, and I find it difficult to express any preference for either half here (It's easier for example to identify what is preferable, Lang's SIEGFRIED or KRIEMHILDE'S REVENGE) as what we have here is really the same story broken more for time constraits and story arc dividing point rather than any real change in tone or direction. Obviously of course, as you well discuss, the narrative moves away from Joan's triumphs and segues into the austerity that defined teh essence of the films by Dreyer and Bresson. It's more intriguing, more intense, more wrenching, but it's a continum in that ravishing Rivette style.

This was some really great work here on both "parts."

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Obviously, I separated the two halves of the film only for convenience in writing about it; it's all one film and its impact is cumulative across its entire length. As Glenn Kenny said in a recent piece on this film, it all leads towards that powerful final shot.