The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

If you're going to do Joan of Arc, it helps to have an actress to play the leading role. Although Luc Besson tries to minimize the importance of this fact by making his Joan an action heroine and as much a neurotic teenager as a divinely driven national savior, the lack of a plausible leading lady is enough to sink what is otherwise an eye-catching, although heavily '90s-style, telling of one of history's most frequently filmed stories.

If you’re going to do Joan of Arc, it helps to have an actress to play the leading role. Although Luc Besson tries to minimize the importance of this fact by making his Joan an action heroine and as much a neurotic teenager as a divinely driven national savior, the lack of a plausible leading lady is enough to sink what is otherwise an eye-catching, although heavily ’90s-style, telling of one of history’s most frequently filmed stories. Impressively visual English-lingo French epic has dubious want-see value for the American public, the one hope for it to catch on lying with adolescent-to-young women. Overseas prospects are brighter; no doubt the whole thing will sound better dubbed into French and other foreign languages. Film opens today in France, Nov. 12 Stateside.

While Besson steers a reasonable enough middle course in his interpretation of one of history’s most singular and mystifying figures, and manages to make the story politically and militarily coherent in the bargain, his now-estranged wife Milla Jovovich adds nothing to the journey other than her strikingly tall and skinny physicality, which is not exactly how one has been led to picture France’s most famous peasant girl.

Most recently seen this May as a nicely rated TV miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski, the story of an illiterate girl who undertakes a mission from God to help drive the English out of France in the early 15th century is certainly open to many interpretations; it has been the subject of dramatists from Shaw to Maxwell Anderson and of filmmakers ranging from Dreyer and Bresson to Fleming and Preminger.

In opening passages spiked with stunning imagery but tinged with all-too-modern sensationalism, Besson swiftly identifies defining aspects of Joan’s life: Her compulsion for confessing, her conviction that “His” voice speaks to her directly, her vision of a silver sword in a field, and her guilt and fury fueled by the rape and murder of her older sister by a English soldier during the sacking of her village.

Script by Andrew Birkin and Besson unfortunately skirts the issue of how Joan developed a local reputation and gathered a following, but by the time she is 17 she is sufficiently known to be received by the Dauphin (John Malkovich), who cannot officially become King Charles VII until a coronation can be held in Rheims, which is held by the English. Given the confusing royal history of the time and the certain ignorance of the Hundred Years’ War on the part of the contempo public worldwide, scenarists do a perfectly creditable job of streamlining and clarifying the conflict, which proves especially helpful later on when Joan is put on trial.

Both the nature and deficiencies of Besson’s approach and Jovovich’s performance are most apparent in the pivotal sequence in which Joan gains the confidence of the Dauphin. The filmmaker tries to walk a fine line with Joan’s visions and voices, leaving open the question of whether they come from God, patriotism, her ego or a fervid imagination. But Jovovich’s overwrought rantings and bug-eyed expressions make Joan seem like a possessed lunatic, by no means a young lady a presumptive king would entrust with his army.

But he does, which puts Joan at the gates of the English-fortified Orleans and the picture on its surest footing as a massively physical war film. Joan, in a state of perpetual agitation and with her long blond hair now cut to masculine dimensions, doesn’t immediately endear herself to all the king’s men with her nutty battle plans and repeated injunctions against cursing. But her fearless charging into battle, born of a sense of her divine mission, soon wins them over, just as the sheer visceral force of the brutal hand-to-hand combat inexorably plunges the viewer into the action.

With an obsessive drive of his own, Besson thrusts the camera into the middle of furious fighting, intimately presenting the vantage points of men swinging heavy swords, attempting to scale the ramparts, getting body parts hacked off, being struck by arrows or doused in boiling oil, literally getting bowled over by cement balls that come shooting out of holes in the fort (pic is big on creative weaponry). The battle scenes, while perhaps a tad skimpy in the numbers of soldiers on view, are nonetheless a feast for the eyes and rep the main reason to see the film on the bigscreen.

Miraclously recovering from a grievous wound (like any self-respecting action heroine, she yanks the arrow out of her chest herself) before scoring a triumphant victory, Joan is sobered by the gruesome carnage; when she warns the English before a subsequent anticipated battle that they would be wise to leave France at once, they actually turn on their heels and do so, paving the way for Charles’ coronation and quick abandonment of the war and Joan with it.

She is nonetheless driven to continue to push the English entirely out of France, which, without much military support, is an effort doomed to failure. When she leads an attack on Burgundy, which is allied with England, she is quickly captured and put on trial for heresy and sorcery, the verdict for which is a foregone conclusion unless she recants and abandons her cause.

The trial, which provides the only contemporaneous text documenting the words of the historical Joan, has more often than not served as the main focus for dramatic works about her. Besson foreshortens the rigged legal proceedings while adding an oddly novel device of his own, that of a figure simply called the Conscience who interrogates the imprisoned girl in her cell and in the process raises doubts and misgivings about the validity of her beliefs and actions. These interludes might have worked had Joan been played by an actress capable of deep introspection and wrenching soul-searching; as it is, they are notable mainly for the spectacle of a hooded Dustin Hoffman, certainly in the weirdest, most disembodied “character” he has ever played, looking like an old rabbi ministering to the tortured Catholic Maid of Lorraine.

Performances overall are serviceable if a bit ragged, with Americans mixing with variously accented Euros on the French side, while the English are portrayed as a crude lot indeed with an overly colloquial penchant for the f-word, something Joan would not have appreciated. Malkovich makes for a blithe and quicksilver Dauphin, while Faye Dunaway has little more than a well-accouted cameo as the royal stepmother.

Some too-flashy visual effects aside, the technical achievements here are excellent. Like the recent miniseries, pic was mainly shot in the Czech Republic, and the splendid locations, along with Hugues Tissandier’s prodigious production design and Catherine Leterrier’s lavishly designed costumes, are beautifully served by Thierry Arbogast’s dynamic widescreen lensing. Eric Serra’s score, which alternates between the orchestral and the synthesized, is solid when it doesn’t tilt toward the bombastic.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

  • Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release (in U.S.) of a Columbia Pictures presenetation of a Gaumont production. Produced by Patrice Ledoux. Executive producer, Leeloo Prods. Co-producer, Bernard Grenet. Directed by Luc Besson. Screenplay, Andrew Birkin, Besson.
  • With: Joan of Arc - Milla Jovovich Charles VII - John Malkovich Yolande D'Aragon - Faye Dunaway The Conscience - Dustin Hoffman The Duke of Alencon - Pascal Greggory Gilles de Rais - Vincent Cassel Dunois - Tcheky Karyo La Hire - Richard Ridings Aulon - Desmond Harrington Camera (color, Technovision widescreen), Thierry Arbogast; editor, Sylvie Landra; music, Eric Serra; production designer, Hugues Tissandier; art director (Czech Republic), Alain Paroutaud; set decorators, Alain Pitrel, Robert Le Corre; costume designer, Catherine Leterrier; sound/sound designer (Dolby/SDDS/DTS), Vincent Tulli; special effects supervisor, Georges Demetrau; digital effects, Duboi; visual effects director, Pitof; visual effects supervisor, Alain Carsoux; stunt supervisor, Philippe Guegan; assistant directors, Stephanie Gluck, Frederic Garson; second unit directors, Gerard Krawczyk, Jean-Paul Meurisse, Pascal Chaumeil; second unit camera, Jean-Pierre Sauvaire, Gerard Sterin; casting, Lucinda Syson. Reviewed at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Beverly Hills, Oct. 15, 1999. (In Tokyo Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 148 MIN.