Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc (2018), directed by Matthew David Wilder (Your Name Here, Dog Eat Dog), is the latest in a long list of film adaptations of Joan of Arc’s legendary story. The real Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431) was a French martyr and canonized Catholic saint. From a peasant family at Domrémy, Joan of Arc had a prominent role in the liberation of France, which had fallen under English dominion during the Hundred Years’ War.
In 1415, King Henry V had taken advantage of internal divisions and many French nobles were conspiring with the English crown against the Armagnac faction. In 1430, Joan was captured by the traitorous Burgundian faction and handed to the pro-English Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who declared her guilty of heresy and other charges in a rigged trial. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.
The trial transcripts were used as evidence for her canonization in 1920. She had already become a symbol of French nationalism from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.
In a recent interview with Alain Hertay, Wilder acknowledged his inspiration from Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994). Undoubtedly Wilder is following the tempo structure of the trial and interrogations and use of the semi-static camera that gave Bresson’s film a theatrical yet realist tone.
In Tony Pipolo’s book Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (2010) we learn that influential critic Susan Sontag judged Bresson’s film a failure because his “experiment” had reached the “limit of the unexpressive,” his aesthetic “moving in the direction of documentary.” In contrast with the poetic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Pipolo posits that in Bresson’s version all conflict stems from the language used by Joan and her judges during the trial: “the very rhythm of questions and answers creates tension and suggests the persistent danger of Joan’s falling into the traps laid by her interrogators. Florence Delay’s performance seems perfect, an unsentimental embodiment of a singular historical figure. Joan embodies the human figure not just as a noble creation, but as the projection of the filmmaker’s elusive idealized self.”
Delay adds a naturalism to the sacred figure of Joan that rivals Maria Falconetti’s poeticism, Sandrine Bonnaire’s belligerence, Ingrid Bergman’s radiance in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), Jean Seberg’s vulnerability in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) – an adaptation by Graham Greene of George Bernard Shaw’s play – and Milla Jovovich’s lunacy in Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc (1999).
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc updates the events into a dystopian USA where alt-right activists are rampant. These religious zealots have developed a gullible fanbase whose gatherings are celebrated around their mysterious saviour Joan, who has been detained and charged for acts of domestic terrorism. Nicole LaLiberté is certainly a revelation as Joan of Enid, Oklahoma – she is also known as Joan of Arc, Joan Doe, or Joan of Waco, aliases that strengthen the notion of her mythical dimension and, at the same time, typify her as a more local personality who belongs to the modern and traumatic history of the USA.
Her supporters want to reinforce the more traditionalist principles of Christianism. Seemingly devoid of intellectual curiosity or scientific rationality, they aim for a white, rural, intolerant, and inescapable fate. As Wilder points out, Joan is very much one of the so-called Trump “deplorables,” despite her name’s origins: Enid may well mean Eneit, “spirit, life” in Middle Welsh.
We witness a military trial set in a Guantanamo Bay-like prison, where Joan is spied upon and tormented on a daily basis by Major Calhoun (Christopher Matthew Cook), a stand-in for Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, the English commander responsible for prosecuting the real Joan of Arc. In fact, it was Beauchamp who after Joan’s execution ordered her ashes thrown into the Seine.
Indelible scenes highlight the loneliness, mystical fervor, and possible mental illness of our post-modern Joan. Oddly, both Wilder and LaLiberté manage to elicit sympathy and understanding toward this self-obsessed martyr figure, who evokes a defiant melancholy and other-worldly magnetism.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc is a tortuous portrait of a self-appointed saviour of so-called Christian values. Through her very powerful performance LaLiberté makes you believe Joan is pure, incorruptible, even magical. Wilder has successfully avoided the postmodern cliché of coloring historical fiction with the brush of learned cynicism, which only would have disfigured Joan of Arc’s memory. Despite her terrible flaws, Joan of Oklahoma is fundamentally devoted to her creed and mission of spiritual salvation.
There is a subtext of mordant irony too. The real Joan of Arc was a descendant of French peasants who opposed the English occupation despite being surrounded by England’s Burgundian sympathizers. In this case, it’s Joan from Oklahoma fighting ferociously for reestablishing the fabled English Puritanism in the land of the free.
There’s also humor in the dialogue: “Do you see the angel…when you look at the President?” Joan is asked. A prison official snickers: “You know Calhoun tried to get a gig on Fox off this? They said he wasn’t a true believer enough.” Amidst the serious and austere mise-en-scène, a subtext of irony pervades, sometimes in the form of an over-conscientious Human Rights Watch agent or a self-righteous Breitbart reporter: “You can play along with these elites. Truth is gonna get out there.”
Although the tone is sometimes claustrophobic during the court proceedings and the waterboarding room scene. Other times it turns comically absurdist, as in the cat-and-mouse game where Joan’s prosecutors show their different degrees of manipulation and political opportunism, represented by the two-faced NSA director (Erin Aubry Kaplan).
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc really works out to be a metaphor for the current radicalization of Republican Christians in the USA, especially their hardcore faction and those advocating the use of violence to restore their alleged supremacy. It’s a brilliant allusion that Joan’s people, who lament the new “decadent urban sensibility” taking over their country, have become the embodiment of human decadence. As one of the court interrogators asks Joan: “If the Devil came and took the form of an angel, how would you know the difference?” Joan evades the question and later reveals ominously: “Truth makes a traitor in a time of scoundrels.”
This inspired film is one of my favorite interpretations of the story of Joan of Arc. It confirms Matthew Wilder as a necessary auteur and visionary. The final post-credit visual coda is magnificent, giving you a chilling effect by adding a futurist premonition that will provoke complex thoughts about our exasperating present and unpromising future. These dark, menacing, complex, compassionate thoughts will certainly persist through time.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc premieres on Thanksgiving at IFFI, the International Film Festival of India (20-28 November 2018).