Dany Chiasson’s fascination with Joan of Arc has led to her feature film My Joan of Arc. Here Chiasson enters into the spirit of her trek on horseback. 411 films

Getting to the heart of the legend of Joan of Arc

By  Herman Goodden, Catholic Register Special
  • March 17, 2012

The product of a decidedly old-world upbringing, French-Canadian filmmaker Dany Chiasson has produced a thoughtful meditation on one of the world’s great saints that feels utterly timeless.

Chiasson grew up with her five siblings in the remote Iles de la Madeleine region of Quebec. Raised in a devoutly Catholic home, as a young girl Chiasson would make the long trek to Mass each Sunday and would listen, enthralled, as her grandmother talked about the saints, most particularly Joan of Arc (1412-31).

“Through Joan of Arc’s story, I learned about devotion, courage, going beyond our limits, France, the medieval times, women, the Catholic Church, the big schism, royalty . . .  all that was fascinating to me,” said Chiasson, wife of Toronto director Bruce McDonald.

“I wanted to meet Joan of Arc, I wanted to hang out with her. Years later I continued to research Joan and her time in books and in movies. But the more I read, the more she became a mystery,” said Chiasson.

Indeed, few historical figures have inspired so many conflicting interpretations as Joan of Arc. A shrewd warrior, a naive political pawn, a saint, a proto-feminist, a cross dresser, a voice-heeding psychotic — Joan has been called all of these and more in the many books and plays that have been produced about the 15th-century peasant girl who rejuvenated a beleaguered nation in eclipse and led a king to his throne. Burned at the stake as a heretic and a witch at the age of 19 (Chiasson wistfully tells us that her grandmother always left out the bit about her martyrdom in her telling of the tale), Joan was declared a saint in 1920.

Chiasson, 41, chose neither to attempt a definitive rendering of Joan’s life and times nor, thankfully, to advance any exotic theories of her own as to what made her hero tick.

Instead Chiasson has taken a very gentle and personal approach in this, her first feature-length film. Above all else My Joan of Arc is a gorgeously filmed exploration of a legend that has gripped Chiasson’s heart virtually all of her life.

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The 78-minute film opens with a sequence filmed in the wintery desolation of Iles de la Madeline. As we watch an older woman and a young girl make their way across a bleak and scarcely peopled landscape to the front door of a small country church, Chiasson in voice-over recounts her grandmother’s gifts as a storyteller.

Next we’re transported to the lush pastoral beauty of Joan’s hometown Domremy-la-Pucelle in high summer. Chiasson interviews an elderly Mme. Panichot, a lifelong resident of Domremy, who at the age of 16 served as the model for a Quebec sculptor whose work was dedicated, “To Saint Joan of Arc from the government of the Province of Quebec” and is on display just outside the town’s basilica. By tracing these threads of connection — Mme. Panichot as a sort of stand-in for Chiasson’s grandmother, a Quebec sculptor whose work is honoured in Joan of Arc’s hometown — the filmmaker establishes her bonafides, her entitlement to tell this story.

The rest of the film concerns the saint’s 11-day journey from Vaucouleurs to the castle at Chinon, where Joan won her first audience with the Dauphin (or king-in-waiting) and thereby changed the course of French history.

To more fully enter into the spirit of the trek, Chiasson retraces that journey on horseback, talking with villagers and guides and experts along the way. As she makes the final approach to the hilltop castle at Chinon, Chiasson falls in with some jousting re-enactors in full medieval regalia who greatly boost the visual splendour of it all.

Most of what we today know about Joan hails from the transcripts of her trial, so her first, relatively undocumented trek in which she sets out to meet her king strongly appealed to Chiasson because it isn’t so encumbered with speculation and theory and dispute. As she says in the film: “I think that the heart of Joan of Arc’s mission is in this first journey from Vaucouleurs to Chinon. To me, that’s where she reveals that she was truly courageous, because she could still turn around. Once she met with Charles and engaged in the war, it was too late to change her mind. But during this 11-day journey, if she had been unsure or afraid, she would have probably gone back home.

“So to me, the heart of the heroine is revealed in her first journey, at the beginning, in the departure.”

For additional information, visit 411films.com/my-joan-of-arc-documentary.

(Gooden is a freelance writer in London, Ont.)

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