Finding Joan

Rated 4.0 Joan the Maid, the two-part 1994 French film just released on DVD in the U.S., handles its historical subjects (Joan of Arc and 15th-century Europe) in a way that has almost nothing in common with Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, Jacques Rivette’s film is a magnificent demonstration of how to get a maximum of historical epic out of a near minimum of means. And it just might be the best film about Joan of Arc made in the second half of the 20th century.

Rivette has the benefit of a big cast, authentic-looking locations and a major star (Sandrine Bonnaire) in the title role. But what makes his film so extraordinarily effective is the spare simplicity of its basic style. A stark, pared-down realism sets the tone for the film as a whole, and the result is a surprising freshness, a combination of physical immediacy and homely beauty that retrieves the historical life of Joan from the simplifications of legend and popular iconography.

The battle scenes are astonishingly modest and unspectacular but all the more effective for the intimacy of their unadorned fragments. Bonnaire’s beautifully understated performance is perfectly in keeping with the overall style of the film, as is the complete absence of “background music” on the soundtrack. A Vermeer-like pearl-gray light gives many of the simple, austere scenes a subtle but transfiguring radiance.

The documentary-like immediacy of Joan’s world in this film is reminiscent of only one other movie I know of, Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 classic The Rise to Power of Louis XIV. Rivette is a past master of the longer-than-usual feature film, and you can add this film to the list of Rivette titles (Celine and Julie Go Boating, La Belle Noiseuse, Amour Fou) that are among the best three-hours-plus movies ever made.