Blu-ray Review: Joan the Maid

STUDIO: Cohen Media Group | DIRECTOR: Jacques Rivette | CAST: Sandrine Bonnaire, Edith Scob, Tatiana Moukhine, Jean-Marie Richier, Baptiste Roussillon, Nathalie Richard
RELEASE DATE: 12/3/19 | PRICE: DVD $19.99, Blu-ray $22.99
BONUSES: trailers
SPECS: NR | 336 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.66:1 | Dolby Digital 5.1 | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall 

The saga of Joan of Arc has been filmed so many times that any filmmaker tackling it has to have a new angle to explore. This epic-length, two-part feature by Jacques Rivette (Out 1Around a Small Mountain) does indeed contain a different angle on the life of the “Maid of Orleans” as well as a terrific lead performance by Sandrine Bonnaire (Queen to Play). It was certainly an unusual project for Rivette, as it was his only fact-based historical film. His other period pieces were based on novels (The Nun, The Duchess of Langeais) or his own scenarios (Noirot).

Rivette was similar to his New Wave confrères Godard and Resnais, in that his films were singularly unpredictable and contained wonderous suspense in their third act. This particular works lacks that element, and so it is not a typical Rivette mind-bender like Celine and Julie Go Boating or Le Pont du Nord. It is the only period piece he made that is based on real events (to the extent that a bibliography is included in the closing credits). It also, of course, leads to a very familiar finale.

Although the film is broken into two feature-length installments called “The Battles” and “The Prisons,” the bulk of the running time is devoted to Joan’s adventures in war (at one point she proudly declares “I am a war leader!”). Her involvement in fighting both the English and the renegade French nobles who sided with them continues well into the second part, with only the last 70 minutes devoted to her arrest, imprisonment, trial and (spoiler alert!) burning at the stake.

Rivette’s trademark style — which borrowed from two of his greatest loves, the theater and silent cinema — is found here. Each scene is an episode, with black screens separating the sequences, and silent movie intertitles introducing them.

Various characters speak directly to the camera, offering first-person “testimony” about the events in Joan’s life (taken from the books cited in the bibliography included in the credits).

The film’s rhythm is indeed not that of Rivette’s best features, which all contain some thriller-like tension. Here, he includes scenes in their entirety that could’ve been abridged. A perfect example is the coronation of the King Charles VII, which is important only because at the very end the new King of France snubs Joan, who has spent several months risking her life to secure his throne. The snub isn’t made any stronger by witnessing the full coronation ceremony.

This sequence is a turning point in the second part of the film and relates to the central theme, which is the betrayal of Joan. The film could in fact have been called “The Betrayal of Joan of Arc,” since Rivette signals early on that, despite Joan enjoying popularity among her family, friends and soldiers, she is going to be sold out by the authority figures she encounters.

Rivette explores this in depth, thus making the film less a spiritual document than an emotional one. The British, the French noblemen who sided with them and, of course, the King, all work against Joan, and she — country teen that she was — is surprised to encounter such mean-spiritedness from her countrymen.

This demystification of a holy figure is clearly Rivette’s central mission. In this regard, Sandrine Bonnaire’s endearing, down-to-earth performance becomes the centerpiece of the film. Her Joan frequently laughs, has a deep camaraderie with both her macho soldiers and the woman who care for her, and experiences several moments of deep frustration (but rarely any doubt).

Bonnaire’s quiet and impressive performance and the gorgeous imagery crafted by Rivette and his regular cinematographer William Lubtchansky (La Belle Noiseuse) serve to make Joan the Maid if not a seminal film by its director most certainly an entertaining and emotional one.

Buy or Rent Joan the Maid

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”