The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 141 Minutes

Milla Jovovich: Joan of Arc
John Malkovich: Charles VII
Faye Dunaway: Yolande D'Aragon
Dustin Hoffman: The Conscience
Pascal Greggory: The Duke of Alençon
Vincent Cassel: Gilles de Rais
Tchéky Karyo: Dunois
Richard Ridings: La Hire
Desmond Harrington: Aulon
Timothy West: Jean Cauchon

Produced by Bernard Grenet and Patrice Ledoux; Directed by Luc Besson; Screenwritten by Luc Besson and Andrew Birkin

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc" flourishes on a story so endlessly portrayed in the movies that it has more or less lost its cinematic passion. In Carl Dreyer's "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc," a silent film masterpiece starring Maria Falconetti, the trial and last days of a saint provoked an immense emotional experience in the viewer, and in the newest, this contemporary adaptation directed by Luc Besson, much time is spent in the battle fields, in which the heroine goes up against clanking armor and heavily-guarded fortresses. The translation is one with mixed results--the Dreyer masterpiece knew Joan was a figure of dignity and human suffering, and was brilliant to say the least; meanwhile, the director of this perspective seems to think Joan was a seething child consumed by war, and haunted by visions that may, or may not, have been the sign of God. The first is effective because it moves with distinction and subtlety; the latter production contains some lurid and jumbled images of thousands of unidentified soldiers tossing sharp weapons at foes, ever so often having limbs torn from their bodies. Director Luc Besson might have eluded some of this confusion had he warned his actors of the difficult and staggering treatment they were participating in, but no such luck. The lead characters have seemingly sealed their fate when they are wielding battle axes that move faster than the ones seen in "The 13th Warrior."

To add insult to injury, someone had the nerve to cast Milla Jovovich as the title character. Ms. Jovovich is not an actress who I dislike (although she appeared in one of the worst movies ever made called "Dazed And Confused"), but her screen personality is unsuitable for this portrayal; even though the character is made out to be something she isn't, the actress is miscast severely, because her boyish charm, incessant tear-jerking and extensive dialogue screaming irritates those who sit under the lights watching the film unfold. To say that she angered me is barely scratching the surface.

But just when hope is lost for this complex production, there is sudden redemption--the final act, which chronicles that ever-so-known trial against the messenger for a charge of heresy in England, saves the film from almost sheer deterioration. Jovovich, who is irritable when barking orders at her soldiers early on, begins to realize her faults as France apparently forgets to pay her ransom to England, and is haunted by the image of a conscience cloaked in shadows. The scenes do not overstep comprehension, and retain a subtle enthusiasm necessary in awakening the legend of one Joan of Arc. If only the film as a whole had been more than just a mildly successful costume epic.

The story, although familiar, bears some intriguing new setups. The first of these elaborate developments opens the film itself--Joan of Arc, still a child, goes to church to confess, frolics in the streets of her village, and stops just outside of town at the site of a brush field. Lying on her back, she has a vision, which is followed by the discovery of a sword lying right beside her. To her, winding up beside it is no coincidence--it is a sign.

More visions follow. Shortly afterwards, a heinous massacre takes place in her village, which includes one disturbing moment in which her mother is killed by an English soldier, pinned up, and raped (this occurs all while Joan is hiding on the other side of the wall, too). She is taken off to live with other relatives shortly thereafter.

Now flash forward about six or seven years. Charles VII, the heir to the French crown, receives notice from a French maiden who calls herself the "messenger of God." It is believed by his court and his mother in law, the vein but intriguing Yolande D'Aragon (Faye Dunaway), that if this woman were really to be God's messenger, she would have special powers that would separate her from the others. The court then places an impostor on the throne and sends the real Charles out into the crowd, later requesting presence of Joan herself so they can test her faith. But everyone is left in awe by her unexplainable gift--she is both able to tell that he who sits on the throne is fake, and pinpoint the right person in the massive crowd. Joan's purpose: to request Charles' permission to take ten thousand soldiers into remote French cities, and reclaim them from the grasp of British troops.

...And thus begins an act of endless, tiresome and sensationally complicated sequences in which soldiers march into war, and emerge with blood puddles left in the battle fields. Joan guides her soldiers so swiftly and precisely that she becomes an utter annoyance (sort of like a fly in the soup). Nearly every line in between is shouted at top vocal range, sometimes followed by snappy remarks being returned by frustrated soldiers under her banner. And the opponents, for some odd reason, choose to slur four-letter words at the French when they are asked to surrender. Who would have thought that this kind of language was popular in that time period?

Technically, "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc" is a shoe-in for some Oscar nominations. Thierry Arbogast's cinematography is fast, swooping and virtually flawless in later scenes, peering into large rooms steeped in rich visuals, as servants watch on as France finally gets its king. The costume design by Catherine Leterrier is equally impressive; she has some serious fun decorating some minor characters in headdresses that look as if they weight more than the humans they cover. And Alain Paroutaud, the art director, puts his backbone into establishing shots with accurate locations and relatively stunning landscapes (he may have found some inspiration from last year's Oscar nominee "Elizabeth"). Indeed, without these aspects, it would be hard to recommend the film, even on the basis of the last half and some fine supporting performances.

Faye Dunaway is perhaps the most admirable here; she impeccably keeps a cool head in the most awkward situations, and acts as not a personal friend to King Charles, but the secret power behind the throne. When Charles is confronted with Joan's request and her demand for a stronger army, it is Yolande D'Aragon who has the solutions.

The final act, which probes the trial of Joan of Arc, is what really stands out. True, we've seen the same kind of results from the Carl Dreyer silent version, but what sets those apart from these is the intriguing execution. Dreyer's film was composed of several direct facial shots which showed the emotions of the characters upon any given situation. Here, Joan is being carried through cells and steep hallways to her doom; judges in crowded courtrooms look at her with displeasure, as she holds them at bay with indirect answers to their pressing questions. While in the cell, the movie even gives Joan an intriguing vision: that of a cloaked conscience, played by Dustin Hoffman, who seemingly convinces her that the visions she experienced during the war might have been her imagination, and not the work of God himself. The approach of the silent film is a far superior one, but that doesn't mean this one is something less than stellar.

Some of my readers may find it odd that I criticize the film so immensely and still give it three stars. The explanation? Since the film has been publicized as one of the year's best films, and has garnered such high expectations from me as a moviegoer, the letdown deserves some extreme criticism. True, I cannot ignore its numerous high points, but with the right attention, revision, and pacing put into the script, this could have easily been a fine cinematic achievement. The movie works, but it is a disappointment nonetheless.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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