This is the second entry in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended the triple feature of Joan the Maid Part 1: The Battles (1994), Joan the Maid Part 2: The Prisons (1994), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) on Saturday, December 11.
Major plot details of the television show Twin Peaks are discussed below.
On February 23, two young women live their last day as mere mortals. Joan the Maid, a 15th century French peasant, arrives at the disgraced Dauphin's court, setting a course that will crown him king within five months and burn her at the stake within another two years. Laura Palmer, an 80s American high school student, confronts her abusive father, precipitating a chain of events that will climax later that night when he brutally murders her. These worldly, sordid details are amplified by a larger spiritual struggle in which the women's lives and deaths are enmeshed. Laura rejects the evil spirit that shares her father's body (and wants to inhabit hers) by accepting a mysterious green ring bonding her to a rival spirit, ensuring salvation alongside death. Likewise, Joan becomes a war hero by listening to supernatural voices, and she overcomes her brutal imprisonment by proclaiming her divine mission, paving the way for her execution as a heretic.
Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid Part 1: The Battles & Part II: The Prisons (1994) and David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) take opposite approaches to these two heroines. Joan observes the saint's behavior without accessing her visions (never once do we hear those famous voices) while Fire Walk With Me immerses us completely in Laura's consciousness, exposing her hallucinations and weird encounters with a ferocious vigor convincing us they are absolutely true. Both films take faith as their subject; perhaps because of their filmmakers, they address and fulfill that subject in very different ways.
Rivette's Joan diptych radically alters Joan's appearance and demeanor over the course of five hours. We meet her as a pretty teenager with long blond locks (like Laura's), perfectly comfortable in her red dress and entirely self-assured as she enters the world of men. At the end of The Prisons, only her soldier's uniform and short bob seem natural (forced to wear a dress in prison, she looks like she's in drag). Having been accepted into the world of stoic warriors, however, she has also been subjected to great sorrow and even doubt. This version of the legendary Joan of Arc is startlingly human, whimpering in terror as she bleeds from an arrow wound, weeping with grief as she hovers protectively over a captured enemy soldier and his dead companion, and freaking out when she is finally told how she will be killed. In lighter moments, Joan experiences fits of giggles and cloudburst smiles that Sandrine Bonnaire delivers with disarming naturalism. The actress superbly walks a tightrope between down-to-earth individual and larger-than-life icon (that shot of Joan watching a coronation in her glistening armor is as mythic as anything I've ever seen in a cinema). In her own very distinct way, Bonnaire is as good in this part as Falconetti was in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929).
Bonnaire was discovered as Suzanne in Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours (1983), playing a teenager whose sexual experimentation, troubled relationship to her father, and emotional distance from admiring peers will ring a bell for anyone who watched David Lynch's TV show Twin Peaks (which introduced an already-dead Laura Palmer to initially captivated audiences). In 1994, when she played Joan, Bonnaire was already celebrated as a French national treasure. By contrast, when Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me premiered to boos at Cannes two years earlier, Sheryl Lee was known only as the dead girl on a cancelled series. Yet Lee's performance as a living Laura is every bit as extraordinary as Bonnaire or anyone else you care to mention. The actress takes scattered bits of character detail collected from Twin Peaks (often written purely for narrative advancement) and weaves them tightly around a deeply-felt emotional core. Unlike Joan, a historical figure whose legend coalesced over centuries, Laura was invented on the fly over the space of several years, simultaneously with the telling of her story. In the prequel film, despite Lynch and Lee assembling the character before our eyes, it feels as if they have unearthed an intact Laura who existed all along behind the myth.
Onscreen, both Joan and Laura move amongst their peers while keeping their own silent counsel - but it's safe to say Joan's support system is stronger than Laura's. Even in her first prison, the young warrior is briefly protected by her captor's wife and aunt, and the second prison at least includes a priest or two who will comfort her as her death approaches. Laura pushes her friends away to protect them and consequently her suffering is entirely lonely. In the end, though, both characters will die alone, panicked, and terrified - martyrs who desperately do not want to be martyrs, clinging frantically to the hope that there is something beyond the castle wall or outside the train car door. Joan, consumed by flames, peers through the billowing smoke to see a crucifix held aloft at her request; Laura, spitting up blood, places an emerald ornament on her finger - in both cases the object represents a promise of spiritual deliverance but not a guarantee. The two have arrived at this terminal station by making a particular stand: Laura, telling her father to stay away (and pushing herself to accept the truth of her situation), and Joan, asserting her own visionary stature and labelling her own accusers as the true blasphemers - both confrontations triggered by the immediately preceding scenes of sexual assault. The characters are convinced they cannot survive through denial, deeming death preferable to saying nothing (though it's important to remember that the killers, not the victims, have chosen death as their consequence).
Lynch and Rivette love games but these films are unusually solemn, especially as they approach their conclusions. Exhilarating and exhausting in their spectacle and audiovisual immersion (the Pink Room, the traffic jam, "Questions in a World of Blue," the coronation, the assault on Paris...), they are also characterized by deep compassion for their heroines, a compassion that never descends into the cheap or condescending. Without actually entering inside Joan's head to experience her mysticism directly, Rivette is remarkably able to show us the story through her eyes. This achievement is most notable during a sequence where Joan hardly appears onscreen, the spellbinding coronation of the Dauphin as king. It's one of the most immersive religious ceremonies I've ever seen on film; while elsewhere Rivette hints at a cynical, or at least realistic, recognition of the political situation, this ritual is presented with the naive wonder of Joan herself. For all its splendor, the coronation remains an earthly scene (one minister remarks afterwards that the ceremony was rushed and "improvised" - a remark whose self-aware cheekiness drew a big laugh of recognition from the audience), evoking the elevated spiritual realm which Joan is drawn towards without quite entering it directly.
This tragic boundary point of Joan the Maid manifests itself most poignantly in the final shot of the film, as a dying Joan screams "Jesus!" before a harsh cut to black. Is this a command, a vision, a desperate plea, an unprecedented curse? An aching realization occurs to us: we don't know, we'll never know, if Joan finds her savior in this moment of agony. The incredibly grim and hopeless Fire Walk With Me actually ends on a far more merciful note than Joan, featuring one of the most transcendent experiences Lynch has ever delivered. A lifetime of the deepest pain lifted from her shoulders, waves of cathartic release washing over her wise yet childlike countenance, the seventeen-year-old incest victim laughs and weeps tears of joy in the glow of her guardian angel.
Perhaps the greatest difference between these two films of faith is that the faith of Joan of Arc exceeds that of Jacques Rivette, while the faith of David Lynch exceeds that of Laura Palmer.