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BARBARIC CINEMA (1) – Jeannette, l’enfance de Jean d’Arc (Bruno Dumont)

Thursday, 20 July 2017 12:14

James Lattimer

Tiny Feet Pound the Sand and Find Release


The soil is sandy here and there’s always a wind, it carries the noise of the sheep so that they can be heard even when they can’t be seen. Perhaps it’s the wind and the sandy soil that keeps the vegetation so uniform, an expanse of scrub, coarse grass, and brambles broken up by rocks, wild flowers, and the river. It’s only when the river narrows that the view changes slightly, where birches and reeds grow and slender trees provide shade. There’s nothing here that isn’t natural and yet something is off, the blues, greens, and light yellows harmonize so well they resemble a color scheme and the landscape breaks down into neat sections: the river, the reed bed, the hillside, the piece of open land before it. It could all be one big stage set, but it doesn’t have to be. When the little girl begins to sing and the music starts up, everything else around her continues as normal, unmoved by her actions. Regardless of the day, month or year or whether she herself has grown, the wind blows, the sheep bleat, the clouds move in the sky, and that is all. If this is a stage, the boards being trodden are sand and the audience is nowhere to be seen. The girl peers into the camera and addresses her songs to the sky, to the heavens, to God? Apart from fleeting shots of the sun or the land from above, there’s no response. Perhaps her gaze is being returned, but perhaps it is not.


If there’s no one to sing for, she must be singing for herself. She sings to make sense of what’s in her mind, to make sense of the world around her and her place in it, to shake up the unchanging space, if only for a while. Her songs are constructed in layers, her spoken words give way to a reedy acapella, rhythm is progressively added until beats and noise fill the air, only to gradually wind down and dissipate again, leaving behind no echo, no trace, except perhaps for something on the inside, understanding, purpose, resolve. It’s no different when she sings with others or they sing to her: her friend Hauviette, the undernourished boys, the two nuns that make up Madame Gervaise, the saints that float above the river, even her rapping uncle. Their nature is anyway unclear, they could be independent entities or just visions that appear when different parts of her thought processes come to the fore, conflicts of the soul given human form and brought to life with song and dance. She herself has two incarnations, the only difference is the tone of the voice and the size of the body. Everything is about her, about preparing her for what will come, for what we know already but won’t get to see, for the realm beyond the Meuse, for the time when the audience is there.


Life in the musicals functions differently than real life, you break into song when you can no longer contain what’s inside you, when it simply demands to be heard, you open the floodgates and find joy in losing control. But when you look inside this girl, what do you see? There’s nothing of her in what she says and sings, her concerns are neither psychological nor stem from individual desire, they spring solely from external duty, to the poor, to the French, to God. The very words that pass her lips are not her own, there were written by one man and placed in her mouth by another, she’s just a vessel for a text, it inhabits her body and governs her actions, it’s always trying to escape, to speak through its host and make its presence felt. It knows too that an unremitting stream of consciousness would fall on deaf ears, which is why it also determines its own delivery, deciding what is to be said by whom at which time and how. The ebb and flow of the songs is thus akin to a pencil darting back and forth over a written page, underlining key sections, making partitions where necessary, indicating when a word, phrase or syllable must receive emphasis, making notes in the margin that won’t be read, but will be felt.


But a body possessed is still just a body and its own qualities persist. Old words chafe against young flesh as the text pushes its way to the surface and the friction bursts forth in leaps, wild gestures, pirouettes, strange movements of the hands. They’re ungainly rather than graceful and it’s hard to tell if it’s the weight of the text pulling down the limbs or just the sheer obliviousness of youth, the body of a saint is still just a body, still just the body of a girl. Even if dancing on this stage is merely a rehearsal for the bigger ones that will come, she already shows no stage fright. It all makes for a strange, even ludicrous spectacle: sheep, sand, sky; a girl, her bodies, their contents; silence, crescendo, noise; gyration, clumsy choreography, headbanging; theology, philosophy, fate. These different pieces fly in all directions, they scatter, collide, clump together, fall apart, but also keep slipping into fervent alignment, when zeal is translated into spasmodic energy, when a realization is so profound it captures the entire body, when the folds of a habit shake first to music and then to silence, when solemnity embraces the ridiculous to reveal the divine. It might sound like an unwieldy mix, but it’s all very simple really: destiny’s tiny feet pound the sand and find release.



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