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
by DAVID KEYES
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
"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.
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.
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.
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, Cinemaphile.org.
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