ROUEN — Coming out of the train station, the rue Jeanne d'Arc, a wide street along the river Seine in this northern French city, leads us straight to the Jeanne d'Arc bridge. And between the two, we pass many signs evoking the young warrior's name: a cafe named "Jeanne d'Arc," a church, of course, even an estate agent's sign solidly attached to the gate of a private mansion.
Historian Olivier Bouzy even says that a grill restaurant once dared to establish itself on the Vieux-Marché square, where Joan of Arc was burned alive in 1431. But beyond these nods to the young woman's legacy, what remains in the collective imagination are the National Front's efforts to use her as an ideological symbol of the fight against "foreign invasion."
But the Norman city seems to have woken up from a long sleep. Rouen is raising its flags and is determined to reclaim Joan of Arc from the extreme-right party's grasp. On March 20, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius inaugurated the Joan of Arc History Museum (Historial Jeanne d'Arc) in the heart of the city's Archbishop's Palace, a medieval site with Norman crypts that was nicely renovated for the occasion.
The History Museum recounts Joan of Arc's epic. There's the story that everybody knows: that of the young pious girl born in 1412 who heard voices from the age of 13 and saw the future King Charles VII putting her in charge of an army, leading to the siege of Orléans being lifted in 1429, liberating the city from the English, before she was arrested and accused of being a heretic.
But the museum also takes visitors through the twists and turns of the investigation that led to Joan of Arc's conviction in Rouen before she died on the Vieux-Marché square, on May 30 1431, at the age of 19. The museum also has the remains of the so-called "Officiality" room where her conviction was pronounced, and where her rehabilitation trial took place in 1456.
Joan of Arc sells
Of course, the operation is also motivated by economic and tourism prospects. The History Museum hopes to attract some 140,000 visitors every year to bankroll the 10.6 million euros ($11.5 million) invested in the project. City officials expect visitors from England, of course, but also from all over the world.
The young girl's exceptional destiny, the incarnation of the free warrior as well as the tortured victim, has never ceased to inspire artists and politicians alike. In an area called "Mythothèque" (the library of myths), the History Museum delves into the "historiographic" and political debates around Joan of Arc and tries to shed light on how her representations were constructed.
"Among film directors as well as politicians, Joan of Arc is a polymorphous figure that everybody can claim," says documentarian Olivier Brunet. "We have no portrait of her alive, except for a sketch that's not precise whatsoever. Anybody with a cause to defend just takes possession of her and what she represents for them. Joan of Arc can be a visionary fighting in the name of God or she can be used in a Nazi propaganda film," he explains, in reference to the 1935 German movie Das Madchen Johanna, directed by Gustav Ucicky.
Philippe Ramos' beautiful and controversial The Silence of Joan (2011), with Clémence Poésy in the lead role, is not part of the selection, a decision justified by an eagerness to please a "general audience." The History Museum didn't include Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) either, despite urging from former Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang. Considered a mediocre work by critics, the movie is nevertheless significant, says historian Olivier Bouzy, whose advice was sought for the film. "It changed young people's perception of Joan of Arc," he says. "A year after the movie was released, in 2000, many students came to me to study the character. Two of them even ended up doing a PhD."
With a festival dedicated to her memory, 2015 promises to be Joan of Arc's year in Rouen. So much so that it seems to relegate the city of Orléans, forever associated with "the Maid" to a lesser position of importance.
Statue of Joan of Arc in Rouen, near the place where she was burnt at the stake — Photo: Vladimir Shelyapin
Cities in competition
The office of Orléans Mayor Serge Grouard prominently features a 1959 picture of General Charles de Gaulle holding the hand of a young girl dressed in armor. Grouard smiles as if to say that he's not threatened by Rouen's appropriation of Joan of Arc. "We haven't opened a museum, but we have the annual Joan of Arc celebration, between end of April and early May," he notes. "A moment of joy, a spiritual but non-religious celebration. I had the same feeling of union in January during the demonstrations in support on Charlie Hebdo."
Each year, a young girl from the Orléans region is chosen to represent Joan of Arc. To give a more modern touch to the celebration, the mayor explains, the town now includes electronic dance music in the annual celebration. But don't even mention Virgil Vernier's critically acclaimed film Orléans (2011). "I don't identify with it," he says.
This short film follows a young woman who moves to Orléans and makes a living as a pole dancer in a strip club. One day, with a friend, she happens to meet the young girl chosen to represent Joan of Arc at the celebration, wandering outside the city center with her horse, away from the festivities.
"I wanted to talk about the contemporary woman," Vernier says. "A free woman who may also be a victim. The main character has illusions, dreams of going to Paris one day. The strip club is the flag of Joan of Arc."