Thursday, April 5, 2018

Come on Baby, Light My Fire

Films: Joan of Arc
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

As I get down to the last few dozen movies on my Oscars lists, I’m starting to find more and more movies that I avoided for one reason or another. With Joan of Arc, my avoidance happened because the movie wasn’t available anywhere I looked. Oh, I found a shortened version on YouTube that cut something like 45 minutes out of the theatrical release. I’d have watched that if I got desperate enough. But lo! and behold, suddenly NetFlix is carrying the film once again. I have to say this is one that, had I not had it on a list, I’d have walked away from partway through.

Joan of Arc isn’t a bad film; it’s just not a great one, or even a very good one. It’s long and talky and it doesn’t pull this off that well, which means that it’s also long and boring. It suffers as well from putting a mid-30s Ingrid Bergman in the role of a French teenager. We’ll get to that soon enough.

Joan of Arc was intended to be exactly what it claims to be by the title—the story of the young Maid of Orleans who, thanks to visions of saints, believed herself destined to lead the armies of the Dauphin and restore his place on the throne. Joan (played by Bergman, if that wasn’t clear) is eventually betrayed, at least in her own mind, when the Dauphin (Jose Ferrer in his screen debut, and for which he was nominated for a supporting Oscar) sues for peace despite being in the position of winning the war. Joan rebels against this, feeling as if all she has done will be for naught. And, eventually, she is tried for all manner of crimes. That said, while the charges against her include things like heresy and witchcraft, it certainly seems like she is condemned and burned at the stake for dressing in men’s clothing.

Here’s the thing—I tend to spend a lot of time on narrative, and this is the third review in a row where I’m given a film that doesn’t offer me a great deal to talk about on that front. Oh, there’s plenty of story in Joan of Arc and a huge cast of characters, but nothing really much seems to happen here. People talk at Joan, who more or less refers to the voices in her head to respond. She’s tested over and over and consistently proves to be right about things, making her either prophetic (what many seem to believe), insightfully smart (entirely possible), or wildly lucky.

And while that has the potential to be interesting, it’s not. It’s just fat guys in robes shouting at Ingrid Bergman. It’s also odd to me that Bergman is the only person on camera with her particular accent. Her parents sound like they’re from the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Bergman sounds Swedish. It’s the weirdest thing because it’s impossible not to see (or hear) this, and no one seems to notice the fact that Joan sounds like she just arrived from a couple countries away. Her brothers sound like her parents. It’s just…jarring.

It’s a problem, too, because a definitive filmed version of at least a part of Jeanne d’Arc’s life was made in the silent era. It’s a story that has been attempted several times, but no one has managed to do anything better or more impressive than The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s still the definitive version of her trial at the very least, the sort of thing that made even a heretic like me see something spiritual.

That’s a problem here, too. There’s plenty of God bothering and talk about the saints here, but none of it really seems that earnest or honest. Bergman, as good as she is, feels like she is going through the motions here. I don’t buy the piety the way I did with The Passion of Joan of Arc, because that felt real, and this feels like it’s been scripted. I’ll freely admit that my own distrust and head-scratching relationship with the divine and supernatural may well account for this, but it can’t account for it entirely. I’ve certainly seen at least sparks of that in other films and there’s none of that here.

From what I understand, this was a story that Ingrid Bergman wanted to bring to the screen for years. Had she been able to get the project made and financed a decade earlier, it would have at least been more believable to have her in the role rather than playing essentially half her age. It simply doesn’t work, and even if the piety didn’t seem artificial, that would pull me out of the story immediately.

I go into every movie I watch hopeful that it will be good. I genuinely want the movie to work and be interesting. This one admittedly had an uphill road, but other films have made it up that mountain before. There’s not enough here to get it over the hump, though. It’s long, it’s laborious, and not nearly enough happens that is interesting. The battles are tame, and even Joan’s execution isn’t that interesting. When you can’t make burning at the stake worth watching, I think you might have a big problem.

Why to watch Joan of Arc: Ingrid Bergman, I guess?
Why not to watch: It’s long and talky.


  1. Love your post's title.

    The first French pun I ever learned involved Joan:

    On ne l'a pas crue, alors on l'a cuite.

    Literally, "They didn't believe her, so they cooked her." The pun, though, is that the feminine participle crue can also be read as the feminine adjective for "raw," as in "raw meat." (The English word "crude" comes from the same Latin root as the French cru.) With this in mind, a second reading of the joke could be: "They didn't have her raw, so they cooked her."

    I wonder whether jokes were being tossed around in the crowd that was watching her execution (at a guess: probably). And that thought puts me in mind of the elevator guy making Waring Hudsucker jokes right after the CEO's suicide in "The Hudsucker Proxy."

    Continuing with the stream of consciousness: there was, I think, a French drama, possibly made for TV, that came out about Joan of Arc years and years ago. Did you happen to see it?

    1. I did not see the television drama.

      I would guess that jokes were being made immediately--that seems to be the trend. There's something very human about making a joke in a terrible situation like that as a reminder that you are still alive.

      A friend of mine worked as an EMT for years and said that after cleaning up highway accidents, he was always ravenously hungry, and the worse the accident, the hungrier he was. I think that's a human reaction, too. Living people eat, and when you've faced that much death, you do something that affirms you are still alive.

      44 stories. 45 with the mezzanine.

  2. Even as a true fan of Ingrid Bergman who will watch her in anything this was an incredible slog to wade through from a rough patch for her right after Notorious when she made the equally mediocre Arch of Triumph and the Hitchcock misfire Under Capricorn.

    She had played Joan on stage a few years previously and scored a major success but I would imagine that the separation that the stage offers made the age difference less noticeable. I can see how with that as a recent event and she being a huge star the studios would think this was a good idea but if suffers what so many of these type of films do-the piety drag. For some reason filmmmakers all became convinced that the way to show religious conviction was to have their films move at a snail's pace and everyone be solemn and portentous throughout. All they usually achieve is putting the audience to sleep, that certainly happens here. It doesn't help Jose Ferrer, that most smug of actors, has a major role.

    The varying accents within families on screen is something that happens frequently and usually once you get into the film it becomes less of an issue but sometimes it really is so apparent that it takes a real suspension of belief to make it through the movie. The movie that comes to mind with that kind of disparity beside this one is "The Strange Woman" wherein Hedy Lamarr plays a lifelong native of Bangor, Maine as is her father. The fact that she speaks with a distinct Viennese accent while her father has something of an Irish brogue and one of her main suitors, also a resident of the town, has an English one is never mentioned which is hysterical. It's actually a decent, odd little low budget affair directed by Edgar Ulmer but you would have thought they could have rethought the setting based on the cast.

    As to this, once really was more than enough.

    1. My favorite example of a weird, inexplicable accent is in a movie I genuinely love--Peeping Tom. We're told that Mark is a lifelong resident of London, which doesn't come close to explaining why he's clearly German.

      The "piety drag" is a great way to put it. It's the same thing that happens in a film like Song of Bernadette, which also suffers from starring Jennifer Jones. At least this one has Bergman, who was a legitimate actress with talent.

      I recall that you aren't a fan of Ferrer. I don't mind him, although when it comes to the variety of Ferrer's I prefer both Jose's son Miguel and the unrelated Mel.

      I agree that once was enough for this, and since this is a good 45 minutes longer than it needs to be, more than enough is probably more correct.

  3. I was at a meeting recently when someone said "if the fire is already burning, what's another log thrown into the pile?" to which another person said "well, if you're Joan of Arc..."