Jeanne d’Arc (1900)
Director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Bleuette Bernon, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy
Synopsis: A divinely inspired peasant woman becomes an army captain for France and then is martyred after she is captured.
Following the success of Cendrillon, his 6 minute version of the Cinderella fairy tale in 1899, French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès grew even more ambitious with this 10 minute retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. As with Cinderella, Melies chose in Joan of Arc a tale that would be familiar to French filmgoers at least, and which they would therefore be able to follow regardless of the disjointed nature of its scenes. Nevertheless, as with many of his longer movies, Méliès provided a written narration to accompany Cendrillon.
The story is told in eleven scenes, beginning with the 13-year-old Joan’s encounter with St Margaret, St Catherine and St Michel in a clearing in a forest. From there, Joan goes home to tell her parents of what she’s seen. Understandably, they try to stop her leaving but we next see Joan at the gate of a castle, pleading to be allowed in to see its occupant. After finally gaining entry, she eventually convinces the duke to entrust her with an army which she successfully leads into battle in Orleans. There then follows an interminable parade scene which, believe it or not, features the same handful of extras running around the back of the scenery after marching across the screen in order to repeat the process a number of times. Joan’s victory helps Charles VII to accede to the throne, which is the cue for another overlong coronation scene. Next, Joan is captured by the English during a battle. While in captivity, she sees a vision of St. Michel before being sentenced to death by Bishop Cauchon. The penultimate scene shows Joan being burned at the stake, after which we see her ascending to heaven.
The main problem with Méliès’ film when viewed today is that it’s too small scale for such an epic tale. Of course, this is down to the technical limitations of the era, something for which Méliès can’t be blamed, and he at least enhances the film by having it painted by hand. Familiarity with the story of Joan of Arc is a pre-requisite if you’re going to understand what is going on, but if you are able to follow the story you’ll appreciate the effort Méliès clearly put into delivering what is a prestige production for its day.
(Reviewed 26th August 2014)