“Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc” is very likely the first medieval heavy-metal musical ever to grace the silver screen. Sadly, it’s not quite as fun as that sounds. If you’re up for something deeply and unsettlingly strange, though, Bruno Dumont’s portrait of the saint as a young zealot has genuine oddball pleasures amid stretches of real tedium.
The film encompasses the young Joan’s early years, when she’s played as a 13-year-old by Lise Leplat Prudhomme and three years later by Jeanne Voisin. The setting for most of the film is a barren patch of sand and river bottom in the northeast of France, where Jeannette tends a flock of sheep for her father while undergoing a raging, rebellious crisis of the spirit. If Christ spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, this movie suggests the young Joan spent most of her adolescence there.
Somewhere offscreen, the English army, in league with the duchy of Burgundy, is ravaging France in the late innings of the Hundred Years War. Not content to merely debate the failure of God to attend to the sufferings of her people, Jeannette and her young friend Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier) sing their thoughts in loud, wobbly voices accompanied by small-group backings that range from light folk-rock to screeching guitar solos.
When a nun named Madame Gervais shows up — played by a pair of closely harmonizing twins, Aline and Elise Charles — “Jeannette” becomes stranger still. Dumont coaches his actors to sing while moving with stiff, ritualistic gestures that feel stranded between the 15th century and modern dance. Occasionally he requires them to whip their hair up and down in a sort of hard-rock davening. The script and lyrics, largely airlifted intact from an 1897 stage drama by the French playwright Charles Peguy, have the declamatory fervor of a passion play, with characters serving as philosophic mouthpieces rather than vessels of human drama. At times, the film feels as though it’s unfolding on a rolling scrim.
Dumont has made a career out of patching odd bits of business and tone into films unlike any others (including his debut, 1997’s “The Life of Jesus,” which, title aside, is not about Jesus). “Jeannette” does have a sly undercurrent of bonkers humor — the heroine’s vision of three saints hovering in the air is almost worthy of Bunuel — and the movie takes a deeper hold once Voisin arrives as the older Joan, her angst now hardened into determination as she sets out to become the warlord-savior she believes France needs.
It’s possible that Dumont and his cast got more out of making “Jeannette” than an audience might have watching it, but there are worse reasons to make a film. And it’s tantalizing to consider that if there were movies in the Middle Ages — not to mention electric guitars — they’d probably look and sound a lot like this.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Written and directed by Bruno Dumont, based on a play by Charles Peguy. Starring Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jeanne Voisin. At the Brattle. 107 minutes. Unrated. In French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.