One of the most enduring tales in Western civilization is that of Joan of Arc, the illiterate teenager from a small village in northeastern France who, in 1429, led a successful series of military campaigns to free French cities from English occupation, thus allowing the dauphin of France to travel safely to Reims to be crowned King Charles VII of France. Dubbed the Maid of Orléans for the first city she freed, Joan’s assaults on Paris and Compiégne were repelled, and she was captured and eventually burned at the stake as a heretic in 1431. Canonized in 1920, her story has inspired everything from works of art and literature to numerous screen adaptations—even an iconic TV series in its own right, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What has kept Joan a perennial favorite is not only the improbability of her quest and her dramatic, tragic end, but also the religious visions that propelled her into action and inspired the faith of seasoned soldiers and a would-be king to follow her lead. She is a prominent figure in the history lessons of all French children and an object of religious devotion for those who find solace in goddess worship.
It seems inevitable, then, that French director Jacques Rivette, a man drawn to the theatrical and to stories about women, would undertake a telling of the life of this very French icon. His two-part, six-hour-long Joan the Maid 1 and 2: The Battles and The Prisons (1994) has received a long-awaited restoration and release by the Cohen Media Group, a huge improvement over the extant versions of the film, at least one of which cut two hours out of its running time.
Rivette is a director given to patient presentation, with a reverence for the written word that shows up on screen in stagey sequences of conversation and exposition. In our supercharged modern world, a work like Joan the Maid will try the patience of many viewers, but it is precisely in the atmosphere engendered by sitting still and paying attention that the film is able to work its magic.
Sandrine Bonnaire is an actor of unparalleled skill who can get inside the skin of characters as disparate as a homeless rebel, a middle-aged factory worker, and, yes, a saint in the making and suggest the deep waters beneath a mysterious or withdrawn façade. Rivette wants us to see Joan as a living, breathing person who laughs and feels pain, fear, and the righteous conviction of her beliefs that is characteristic of most teenagers. Bonnaire suggests somewhat imperfectly Joan’s youth primarily through her put-on swagger and her fearlessness in battle, but it is the older actor’s maturity that imbues Joan’s seriousness of purpose with the power to sway powerful men to her cause.
This is not to say that we viewers are necessarily persuaded. It is not our country that is occupied by a hostile force, so we have no reason to want to believe her. In fact, once Joan sees Charles crowned, the culmination of the mission she has steadfastly heralded from the beginning of the film, we can see that she is at loose ends. Her visions no longer give her explicit instructions, and it seems likely that Joan may be just a girl who wants to live as a man. In the 15th century, invoking St. Catherine and St. Margaret may have been the only acceptable way for a transgender person to live out their true identity. On the other hand, when, as a prisoner of the English, Joan agrees to wear women’s clothing—a bargain she makes to avoid being burned—it’s pretty obvious to see the disadvantages of being a woman at the mercy of men in or out of prison.
The battle sequences, a bit paltry due to budget constraints, offer an object lesson in the mechanics of siege warfare at a time when most cities were surrounded by walls. Joan watches from a high window as French and English soldiers taunt each other across a stream. They throw stones at each other, and eventually, several of the French soldiers chase the Englishmen away from the shore. This gives Joan the idea to force the English to retreat by attacking them from an island farther removed from their strongholds.
Combat is personal. We see her troops use ladders to scale the city walls and engage in hand-to-hand combat. When a page is killed, Joan offers a sympathetic ear to her own distraught page. There is room in her heart for compassion, both for the occupied and the occupiers.
Joan the Maid provides an accurate and complete version of a story best known to many of us only in terms of her fiery martyrdom. Rivette’s humanizing chronicle brings Joan back to life without disturbing her religious mystery.
EDITORS NOTE: Joan of Arc and Joan the Maid are included in AWFJ’s REEL REAL WOMEN, an annotated list of iconic real life women whose stories have been revealed in narrative features. See the list for additional films about Joan of Arc.