Johanna D'arc of Mongolia
1989, 165 min. Directed by Ulrike Ottinger. Starring Delphine Seyrig, Irm Hermann, Ines Sastre, Many Horses, Camels.
REVIEWED By Chris Walters, Fri., Feb. 21, 1992
The title of Ottinger's movie promises action, conflict, and exotic adventure. So does its premise: seven European women, passengers on the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway, are taken hostage by Ulan Iga, a Mongolian princess, and forced to live for the better part of the summer with her band of women warriors on the steppes of that remote land. Exotic and adventurous it is, but the loveliest thing about Johanna d'Arc is the leisurely defiance with which Ottinger refuses all the conventions of the action epic. In their stead, she attempts to answer the question posed at the beginning: “Must imagination shun the encounter with reality, or are they enamored of each other? Can they form an alliance?” Virtually plotless, this movie replaces violent conflict with something much more akin to lived experience, as women of two cultures encounter one another and find that they can get along splendidly. Of course, it helps that one of the Europeans, Lady Windemere (Seyrig), is a veteran ethnologist who speaks Mongolian, that another is a young Frenchwoman named Giovanna (Sastre) who is utterly open to new experience, and that the others -- a singer fresh from the Broadway stage and a trio who are the klezmer version of the B-52's -- are themselves show business nomads. Only the prim German tourist has trouble adapting and then not much, once she relaxes a little. More fortunate still, the Mongolians live up the their reputation in ethnology circles as the most hospitable people on earth. Precisely why they take the Europeans hostage is never clear -- perhaps it's their idea of a cultural exchange program. At any rate, the princess finds a soul mate in Giovanna, the ethnologist takes notes and smooths over difficulties with the air of someone who's clearly found heaven on earth, and the entertainers, who know a good time when they see it, have loads of fun. (In one of the sweetest scenes, the klezmer gals hold gongs before their faces, trusting the accuracy of the tribal archers who produce tones by shooting arrows at the small metal discs.) Ottinger observes it all with the equanimity of a feminine Howard Hawks on holiday, holding her camera at eye level in medium and long shots, framing the action with lush, verdant expanse of the Mongolian steppes. Her reluctant use of manipulative editing devices -- close-ups, cross-cutting and the like -- gently forces the viewer to abandon all preconceptions and watch the action more alertly, eyes primed for surprise. Even at nearly three hours, the movie seems attenuated, because it's seeded with good stories: the early career of Lady Windemere, the further adventures of Giovanna, and the continuing saga of the klezmer trio, not to mention Princess Ulan Iga's implied wrestlings with modernity. Is it too much to hope for a sequel? And why is the number seven so important in Mongolia, anyway?