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The Messenger

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 19 November 1999


Directed by Luc Besson.

Starring Milla Jovovich,
John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway,
Tcheky Karyo, Vincent Cassel,
Richard Ridings, Pascal Greggory,
Timothy West and Dustin Hoffman

 Written by Luc Besson and Andrew Birkin

In The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Milla Jovovich, as the Maid of Orléans, gripped by religious fervency, seems to rise up as if on tip-toe, her body rigid, taut, her head craning back as her eyes grow wilder and rounder, as if being pulled by some big, invisible string from behind. She seems to be acting with every fiber of her being a-quiver, and she isn't convincing for an instant. As she rallies her troops to battle, or delivers ultimatums to the enemy, she does so with a strident, faltering voice, not of a girl, but of an actress trying to be a girl who is trying to be a leader for God and France.

If it's hard to believe why so many men would fight for her, it isn't entirely Jovovich's fault. She has shown that she can be a perfectly fine actress, such as in her excellent performance in Spike Lee's He Got Game. But she's simply out of her depth, here, and the way the role has been shaped by the filmmakers, it makes impossible demands upon her. She races across the countryside, lunges in and out of buildings and houses, paces back and forth, and sometimes even screams at people because she's impatient to be about doing God's work -- "the sooner the better,” she says, or "better now than later.” When soldiers tease her for being a girl, she promptly starts hacking off her long hair with a knife, until an aide intervenes and says something to the effect of, for Pete's sake, if you're going to cut off all your hair, at least do it properly. She whacks one soldier across the face for swearing too often. She attends Mass daily, confesses often. And yet, for all her energy and effort, she's not intent on fame, heroism, or power. "I'm just the messenger," she says.

Luc Besson's new film tries to be a number of things -- a mystical religious drama, with almost lysergic sequences showing visions accompanied by moaning on the soundtrack; an elaborate, and violent, historical action picture; and, above all, a revisionist look at one of the most famous martyrs in history -- and it doesn't succeed in doing anything well. It recreates fifteenth-century France in lavish visual detail (and with sometimes beautiful photography by Thierry Arbogast), but has been written in modern vernacular, with characters using jarringly anachronistic profanity. (Is this the only way the filmmakers figured they could reach a wide audience?) It stages huge, ferocious battle sequences (including one using a device that rolls huge round stones down chutes that expel them, at full speed and close range, against attacking forces) and then films them in a welter, so that it's impossible to follow the progression of the fighting or to see what is going on when and where. The historical background that led to the division of France during the Hundred Years War, and to Joan's mission -- to unite the country, under God, and set the Dauphin, and future King Charles VII, on the French throne -- is dispensed with in an opening title crawl that goes by so fast that you can't read it all, and it isn't even that wordy.

Luc Besson is a director who likes to work with speed and flash. There was lots of that in La Femme Nikita, and, oh, boy, there was plenty more in The Fifth Element, to be sure. In this film's opening sequences, the young Jeannette is seen opening her arms and exclaiming, "It's wonderful!" -- the local priest (Desmond Harrington) has just told her that it's okay for her to listen to the "voices" that she's started hearing -- and is shown running through fields of poppies, of buttercups, and of heather before throwing herself down in a meadow and receiving a sign -- a silver sword lying in the grass next to her. Before we have a chance to start wondering if we've wandered into Song of Norway by accident, wolves appear, men set lighted arrows into bows, and Jeannette returns home to find her village in flames. Is this real, or fantasy? It's real: in the loathsome scene that follows, Jeannette sees a member of her family raped, then murdered, by one of a group of dirty, greasy, leering British soldiers. The sullen child is then packed off to stay with her aunt and uncle for a while; the uncle is assured that Jeannette will "grow up, meet a man, make some good children.... Soon, she'll be right as rain.” Instead, Jeannette barges into a church, at night, during a lightning storm, grabs the chalice from the altar, gulps down all the sacramental wine, and demands to be "one" with the Lord.

Jeanne (as she is, correctly, addressed in the film) turns into a young woman who bulldozes her way through life in order to accomplish what her "voices" instruct her to do. She's portrayed as part-visionary, and part near-psychotic hysteric. "God may forgive your blasphemy," she tells the British soldiers who taunt her at Touraine. "But I never will!" Besson's Jeanne d'Arc is a Jeanne who makes threats.

There are some effective scenes during the first hour when Jeanne is admitted into the court, and confidence, of the Dauphin (John Malkovich, who plays him like a doofus), and of some of the royal scheming that results. Faye Dunaway puts in a splendid appearance as the Dauphin's stepmother, Yolande d'Aragon: with a headdress that conceals her hair under a raised latticework of intricately crafted wire and jewels, and with her forehead and eyes emphasized, Dunaway plays her as a soft-spoken, beautiful serpent who, without having to say so, is understood to be the one who wields the real power around Chinon. (Besson, though, seems to have directed Dunaway's scenes with more than a passing thought to Virna Lisi's outstanding performance as Catherine de Medici in 1994's Queen Margot.)

The whole second hour of the film is given over to a series of pulverizing battles. We're shown the soldiers smirking over the young girl and her ultimatums, but the film is hard-pressed to depict how she wins their loyalty and respect. And then, Jeanne is shown as having a crisis of conscience. She looks at what's around her after the siege of the fortress at Touraine -- there are men killed, heads lopped off. What has she done?! Since she is untutored and illiterate, she can be excused for not being familiar with the passage in the Book of Exodus which says, "Thy God is a God of war."

The picture clumsily tries to turn into a psychological drama at this point, with Jeanne's trial shuttled into the last 20 - 30 minutes. (The whole film runs 2 1/2 hours.) The remarkable responses which the real-life Joan of Arc gave to her judges and inquisitors during her trial, which were recorded and still exist in the National Bibliotheque in Paris, are here either reduced or simply ignored altogether. Instead, Besson and his co-screenwriter Andrew Birkin introduce a character referred to as "the Conscience,” who is seen addressing Jeanne, primarily in her jail cell, about just what she has been up to lately. Were the things that she saw, the things that she heard, really signs from On High, or did she simply chose to see and hear them as such? How much was she really doing with no thought of herself? And didn't she enjoy, just a little bit, all that hacking and hewing in battle? On the other hand, how do we know that, in the solitude of her cell, Jeanne, in reaching out for God, is actually touching the Other, as Georges Bernanos so eloquently put it?

Dustin Hoffman takes on the role of "the Conscience,” wearing a black robe and hood, and I must admit that he provides some genuine dramatic zing to the film's final part, when we most certainly could use it. He doesn't camp-up the part, but neither does he go in for being pompous or pretentious. His pragmatic, and systematic, deconstruction of just how that silver sword could have found its way into that field -- instead of how Jeanne chose to see it get there, as something that wafts down from Heavens on a beam of light -- is a deftly executed piece of acting by Hoffman. With cool, penetrating eyes and a level voice that can be almost merciless, he regards the fidgety Jeanne while saying, "You don't think He's big enough to deliver His own messages?"1

A Joan of Arc that turns out to have acted out of self-interest, all along. That is not a bad idea for a movie. And, if so, does that make her any less of a great person? A girl, a peasant girl, not yet twenty years of age, leads hardened soldiers into battle against two armies, from Britain and Burgundy, and wins. She gains so much popular support that the only way those in authority could get rid of her was by accusing her of heresy, and executing her. Even from a completely non-secular standpoint, this is quite an achievement for someone in the 15th century, who was common-born, and not just a woman but a girl. (Nobody, for instance, remembers what Charles VII did, although the Hundred Years War came to an end under his reign, and he was credited with making some important reforms in France.) But it would take a better artist than Luc Besson to make a movie out of this. He ends his picture on a rather smug note, but fails to even show us what was on the banner than Jeanne felt so strongly about carrying into battle -- or that, with Charles VII's help, Jeanne's judgment was officially reversed in 1456, 15 years after her death.

One final note: Along with the aforementioned sexual violence, the film also contains long and brutal sequences of battle and carnage, and a graphic depiction of Jeanne being burned at the stake. This is not a film for children. Yet, on the way out of a screening, I saw a father with three kids, all well under the age of ten. "Well, what do you think 'the message' was?" he asked them. If you want your kids to learn about Joan of Arc, rent the recent TV. special with Leelee Sobieski, which has just become available on video. 

1I must remark here, though, upon one aspect of the film that's disconcerting, the casting of Hoffman and, uncredited, the actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz in key, very Christian roles. Besson may have been after some naive sort of universality, but the fact remains that both Hoffman and Kassovitz are Jewish, and since European Jews were routinely persecuted and murdered for centuries, often under the pretense of being "Christ-killers,” the choice of casting in the film is nonetheless in questionable taste.)

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