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Joan the Maid: The Battles & The Prisons (Jacques Rivette) 1994


    Stripped of much of the incident that one would expect from an expansive biopic, but still remarkably satisfying, Jacques Rivette’s two-film epic Joan The Maid: The Battles and The Prisons finds a psychological realism that’s only enhanced by the director's unorthodox approach. Each of these films plays well when seen next to each other, but both still function independently. The first film, The Battles, is more concerned with Jeanne's (Sandrine Bonnaire) faith and how her determination led the troops to reclaim the deposed Dauphin’s crown, while the second is more concerned with the political machinations that eventually lead to her death. The most admirable thing about either is that they never force an interpretation of Jeanne on us. It’s to the film’s credit that the aura of mystery created makes her far more compelling than any definitive answers could have made her. The movies feel a bit distanced, both physically and emotionally, but the chaotic crises that Jeanne faces on the battlefield, in her mind, and while in prison still pack a punch.


    Bonnaire’s performance goes a long way toward establishing Jeanne as a believable, conflicted person and not just someone who seems destined for sainthood. She brings the required devout intensity to her role, and creates a Jeanne that’s appropriately complex. Though she was in her mid-twenties when the film was made, she is still quite girlish. The moments where she is a bit petulant, pigheaded, and naïve make her that much more believable when she’s firmly espousing her devotion, and when she needs to inspire the troops to rally against impossible odds, she still seems up to the task, moving about like a woman possessed. That she creates a complete depiction of such a towering historical figure in spite of Rivette’s decision to remove several key scenes in her narrative (the meeting with the Dauphin, the taking of the cities) only further stresses the capability of the actor.


      Rivette helps us to understand Jeanne in other, more important ways, however. His production strategy places the movies in fully realized worlds that feel entirely holistic and naturalistic. The camera glides about observing details that most films would gloss over and as a result the images take on a real, physical, historical weight. What’s on screen doesn’t feel like a recreation so much as the actual event itself. The unshakable feel of the world reminds the audience of the corporeal, underlining the disparity between Jeanne's mortal form and her potentially divine actions. The undeniable presence of the physical underscores how such passion is an ill fit when applied to a mere mortal, and reminds the audience why her actions are so exceptional. That there are no voices from the heavens booming out casts the existence of her visions into doubt, but simultaneously ensures that believing Jeanne when she recounts what she’s heard from “the angels” requires genuine faith on the audience’s part since nothing has made them cinematically “real” (whereas everything but them is made thoroughly “real” through Rivette’s technique). The difference between Jeanne’s very existent faith and the actual presence of a divine hand guiding her is made apparent, and that distinction makes the ramifications of the eventual inquisition that she faces more complex.


    If one’s knowledge of history ensures there’s not exactly suspense in The Battles over whether Jeanne will convince the Dauphin of her visions so that she can help him ascend to his rightful throne, Rivette is to be praised for keeping the scenes where she actually talks to him off screen. With the outcome of the battle sequences being common knowledge, they are inherently going to be less than exciting on one level because to the audience they will seem predetermined. Rivette excises large portions of most of them (Despite the title of the first film, it takes about 80 minutes before combat begins. Similarly, it takes about 50 minutes before Jeanne is captured in The Prisions.) and avoids the most important one entirely, offering an intertitle relaying news of the troops’ success and a shot of Jeanne praying instead of a bloodbath. This style is appropriate because the most vivid drama in the movie comes whenever Rivette shows Jeanne praying desperately for divine guidance. In the first film, instead of the national spectacle one might expect, he delivers a personal one, since everything hinges on his protagonist’s faith. He defies expectations in the second film as well, by turning his attention to the forces that squabble over Jeanne’s fate. This approach infuriates in the best possible way, since audience sympathy at this point lies with Jeanne, who loses a bit of Rivette’s gaze just as she stops hearing from the divine voices. Whenever she’s not on screen during The Prisons, she is missed.


    Rivette’s unique approach in The Prisons allows him to completely avoid competing with Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the great masterpieces of cinema, even though both movies condense experience of Jeanne’s the four-month trial down to one day. The physical and mental torture that is inflicted upon Bonnaire’s Jeanne is less rapturous and stylized than that Dreyer’s Falconetti faces, but it’s still damn effective in conveying the horror of her situation. Bonnaire’s admission of fear is still tough to bear even if Rivette doesn’t attempt to portray Jeanne’s earthly suffering as something divine. Rivette’s film feels more honest (if perhaps a bit less amazingly overbearing) than Dreyer’s, but that has more to do with his approach than any flaws in Passion. By this point, because of the constant physical reminders that dominate Rivette’s film, any corporeal punishment, including death, seems wholly terrifying. On the flipside, the moment when Jeanne receives sacrament, and makes the ultimate physical commitment to Christ, feels transcendent because of the same considerations. At the end of Joan the Maid, it becomes wholly apparent that from the start, even through his seemingly non-committal gaze, everything Rivette has been doing has been in preparation for those realizations.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman