Bruno Dumont attended the 71st edition of the Locarno Festival to pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award and present CoinCoin and the Extra Humans, the follow-up to his sci-fi 4-part comedy series (and arguably biggest mainstream hit), P’tit Quinquin. But the buzz around the French maverick auteur owed as much to Quinquin’s new extra-terrestrial encounters as to the news that his last feature film, the 2017 Joan of Arc-themed musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, will soon have a sequel of its own. Jeanne, the second and last chapter in the life of The Maid of Orléans, started shooting today, August 6. Based as its predecessor on the play by Belle Époque writer Charles Péguy, “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” Jeanne is set to follow the eponymous heroine as she triumphs over the English in the Hundred Years War, and is later put on trial for heresy and burnt at the stake.
Tucked away from the sun inside the Belvedere Hotel’s bar, Dumont spoke with me about his fascination for Joan of Arc, the crucial changes between Jeannette and Jeanne, and some unconventional methods to direct his actors.
Your films have always struck me as rather singular “closed chapters,” so to speak. After CoinCoin and the Extra Humans, you’re adding another sequel to your filmography. Why the fascination for Joan of Arc, and what should we expect in this follow-up to Jeannette?
For one thing, the lead character has certainly changed a great deal. What fascinates me about Joan of Arc is her spiritual strength. In Jeannette, I followed her when she was very little. Her childhood interested me: I loved the idea of studying how her vocation began. And now in the sequel my interest has shifted to the question of how that vocation evolved, and how it all ended for her. I found it to be an appealing story, it had a good subject. But the question then was: how do we make it work? They were all issues we also faced with CoinCoin: how to develop and approach a continuing narrative. Of course, we’re still talking about Joan of Arc, but she’s changed. So I wanted to change and adapt my means of expression as a way to try capture her interiority, if you like. It’s a question of entering a body and representing it. I do not think that cinema shows what is real; I think cinema shows our spiritual life.
That said, we also had to deal with a few logistical concerns. When I asked the actress who in Jeannette plays the older Jeanne [Jeanne Voisin] if she wanted to star as the lead character in the sequel, she said yes. But she soon started to complain about all sorts of problems – she said she had some issues with her teeth, that she did not want to cut her hair short, did not want to ride a horse… I just felt that something was wrong, and I lost interest. But as we eventually gave up on her, I found myself in trouble: I had no actress, and didn’t really know where to look for one. And then I realized, [snaps his fingers] we had one already! The actress who plays the 8-year-old Jeannette [Lise Leplat Prudhomme], I was going to work with her!
I thought the idea was terrific: having a little girl to star as a near-adult character meant revising the whole story. The girl was 8 when she starred in Jeannette, and she’s going to be 10 in Jeanne. And the very idea that you could have a 10-year-old burn on a pile of wood, well, the audience’s interest in the whole myth could be revamped. And that’s what’s important. Remember there’s about 600 films on Joan of Arc. We’ve seen everything already! So I think there’s lot of strength in the whole idea, and I think it’s going to change it all. Just imagine a little girl riding a horse, leading men to the war, confronting old sirs, members of the clergy… That to me is extraordinary. And it gives me so much enthusiasm. It’s a risk, of course, but you have to take a few in life.
I remember you claiming that one of the most original renditions of Joan of Arc you’ve ever seen was the one by Cecil B. DeMille, Joan the Woman , because he made her look like she was 40. I was thinking about that earlier, when you were talking about the casting of 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme. It just strikes me as equally original.
Yes, but remember the decision was pure coincidental – a matter of sheer chance, really. And there’s a sense of extravagance in the choice, too. Whenever you look at Flemish paintings, you can see perfectly proportionate characters, and others whose proportions are completely off. And that to me makes sense. In the case of Jeanne you sort of need the proportions to be off to give a sense of rhythm, to reawake the story, so to speak. I think that’s going to place us in a position to start feeling again for Joan of Arc, to increase our sensibility toward her story.
What about the score? Part of what made Jeannette so memorable was your partnership with electro-death metal composer Igorrr, but it looks as though you’ll no longer be working with him in the sequel: you have recruited French pop singer Christophe instead.
Well, I loved the electronic score we used in Jeannette, but I felt like we had to change it. I think the idea of relying on electronic music worked well for that first half of Jeanne’s life, but does not quite fit with the way she evolves. As she grows older, we hit on a certain sadness. She is abandoned by the King, by the Church, and eventually condemned. How do you express that? How exactly do you capture the feelings she must be going through as she waits to kick the English out of France, the feelings of someone who’s abandoned by everyone? I think romantic music is far better suited to capture that feeling. And it’s important the audience gets that. Remember Joan of Arc is a mystical figure, but we can’t be too obscure about her. So I looked for a singer able to capture that melodic vibe. And Christophe… do you know him?
I’m afraid I’m not too familiar.
Oh, he’s a very interesting artist. He started off as a singer in variety shows in France, back in the 1960s, but his music has evolved dramatically. Such incredible melodies – to cry for, really. And I think it’s fine. It works. You need a little “mélo” and that’s what it’s going to be – a bit of a melodrama. It’s like in CoinCoin. There we laughed, here we’re going to cry. After all, it’s quite a tragic story, and I don’t need to tell you that.
The score will change – will the choreographies do too? Will you be working with the same choreographer you recruited for Jeannette, Philippe Decouflé?
Yes, we’ll keep working together, but this time he’s going to focus largely on the battle scenes. It’s just that our budget is tight and I can’t have three hundred horses, so I’ll have to figure out something different. I’m going to try with a few ones – and to “poetically express” the battle, if you like. Expect the girl to dance a lot less. In Jeannette, many of her gestures and dances involved hands and arms. Here the task will be different, perhaps less spectacular than it was before, but nonetheless necessary. She needs to be able to act, stand, ride a horse and fight like a man! Remember she’s going to look like one: her hair will be cut, her clothes will be a warrior’s. A little girl who plays a guy’s part. And that’s really not a small feat. It’s a lot of work. So the key task for the choreographer this time won’t be teaching her how to dance, as much as helping her to get used to her body – to walk, march, and so on.
I remember watching Jeannette and feeling entranced by the relationship between characters and the space they inhabit. It’s a near-symbiotic dynamic that comes to full light in the choreographies. I was wondering how exactly do you prepare for those dances, those gestures.
Are the choreographies prepared before or after you’ve chosen the locations you’ll be shooting in?
Locations, to me, come before anything else. The location where you operate shapes your whole work – your cinematography, the staging of scenes, and so on. In the case of Jeanne, I will be shooting in a dune region, and inside the Amiens cathedral. So I went to Amiens, paid a visit to the cathedral, and looked carefully at the grounds. As soon as I get a clear sense of what the grounds will look like, I liaise with the choreographer, speak with my camera operators, and figure out how to proceed, what movements we can try out, etc. But all my ideas come from the location. The Amiens cathedral was not going to close its door to the public to let us shoot, so we’ll be shooting with tourists inside the church. And that’s fine, they’re tourists inside a cathedral, and tourists in places like that won’t be speaking loud anyways. Of course, it’s a risk, as people may always just shout in the middle of a take, but it’s a risk worth taking.
Speaking of the importance of locations – I was wondering if you could elaborate on your tendency to cast local actors, people who live in and around the places you shoot in.
Well, my job is to forge relationships. Anywhere you go there are harmonies between places and people. There’s like a mystical relationship, if you like, between people and the vegetation that surrounds them. Cinema is often so fragmented that it is crucial to have some elements that help things stick together. To me, casting local people is a necessity. Because if you don’t, well… there’s all sorts of films I just don’t believe. You see Parisians playing people from the south of France, and I don’t believe that for a second. It’s a question of verisimilitude. I know there’s some directors who really can’t be bothered to even try, but I can’t do it that way. I just can’t. I need to have in my hands people and things that are perfectly in synch. That’s it.
I recall you said working with a professional actor is like working with a Boeing 747, you have plenty of buttons are your disposal and just have to choose which ones to click, but you’ve worked with so many non-professional actors already, and I wondered what the dynamic between nonprofessionals and professionals has played out for you.
The biggest concern for a professional actor is to do a good job. A non-professional just doesn’t care. And that changes everything. Sure, a professional can offer you different options, different variations on the stuff you expect from them, but I don’t want that. I prefer people who resist me, who expect nothing and have nothing to give. I prefer people who are a little lost, and that’s because movie characters to me always feel that way. After all, we’re all non-professionals whenever we act in life. When we walk, when we interact with other people… there’s something authentic, something true in the way we perform those actions. And I need that sense of authenticity to work with. It’s like if I were a sculptor: I need some good material to work with. If the material I have isn’t good I can’t do anything. A professional would ask me: “do you want me to say it this or that way? Do this, or do that?” And you always have to govern them. There are people who know how to deal with that, but I just can’t. My actors are not free, and I don’t care about their freedom. There is no such thing as freedom in cinema. There is a script, and your actors must follow it.
You’ve begun relying on a few unconventional techniques to direct your actors. Apparently you’ve designed a method whereby they wear earphones, which you use to give them stage directions. When did this start, and why?
Actually it all started during Jeannette. And it was a necessity, really. We had to make sure the girl would wear earphones because she was singing, and she needed to hear the music. And I’d help her, a bit like in theater. Anytime she forgot the words I’d be there to help. And I quickly realized just how much precision the method could grant me. I could intervene and suggest changes as we shot. Turn around. Wait. Slow down. Move. Look at the camera. Turn your eyes to your left, to your right. Turns out I could cut down on the number of takes because I was giving far more directions. This forces me to stay away from the stage, and lets me oversee the whole thing from the comfort of my car. And it’s worked so well I now got all the actors from CoinCoin to wear earphones, too. I can talk to them, give real-time instructions – faster, slower – and this makes for greater intensity, better precision in their performances, which would be difficult to elicit in other ways. And mind you, it really does not undermine their creativity. It’s not like they wear earphones and turn into marionettes. Quite the contrary. It frees them of certain constrictions, and helps their performances feel more natural.
CoinCoin and the Extra Humans premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and Jeanne begins production today.