Rated R for graphic war violence and language
Starring Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman
CineSight Rating ***
At the outset, let me say that with the messanger, director Luc Besson (LA FEMME NIKITA, THE PROFESSIONAL) seems intent on presenting less a historical Joan of Arc, and more of his own vision, Joan as art. I think the movie actually reveals more about Besson, film maker, than it does about his subject. It is difficult to be ambivalent about THE MESSENGER. It is likely to be embraced as a piece of quirky, cinematic art, while at the same time making historians cringe.
The story begins with a vivid but confusing crawl, which attempts to capture the essence of the 'Hundred Years War' between France and England, in a single paragraph. We're introduced to Joan as an exciteable, imaginative 11-year old, zealous about her Catholic faith. Not only does she sense a continual need to say confession, she also sees visions and hears voices.
One day she discovers a sword laying in a field (a Besson addition). Joan interprets this as a sign, but of what she isn't certain. Returning home with her new acquisition, she finds her village being ravaged by the English army. After witnessing the rape and murder of her older sister (another fabrication), she immediately goes again to confession, wracked with guilt over her own survival and her sister's terrible death. The priest tries to console her by suggesting that God may have spared her for some special purpose.
Flash forward. Now a blossoming 17-year old with considerable local support, Joan (Jovovich) approaches the deposed Crown Prince, Charles VII (Malkovich). She tells him that God has given her a message. If Charles will grant her an army, she will save France and put him on the throne. Encouraged by his mother-in-law (Dunaway), Charles agrees, thinking this wild young heroine might actually breathe new life into his tired armies. The French commanders are understandably less than thrilled with Joan's intrusion in the affairs of war. At first they are irked by her impatience, but they soon warm to her as she rallies the troops. A bloody but victorious battle ensues to free the besieged city of Orleans, heralding a turning point in the war and catapulting Joan into the national spotlight.
Flash forward through further battles to the final showdown between the two armies. Ranks of horsemen, archers and infantry wait face-to-face, ready for the signal to begin hacking and hewing once again. Joan rides alone to confront the English commanders. Nervously, but with conviction, she delivers her message to them from 'the High King of Heaven': go home in peace or else you will die here. The invaders choose to walk away from the battlefield.
Charles is crowned King of France, and Joan proceeds with a disastrous campaign to retake Paris. Her army depleted, she returns to Charles, demanding to know why he didn't send reinforcements. However, having gained the Crown, Charles the politician now wants to negotiate with the English. Fiery young Joan is becoming an embarrassment, a stumbling block to those talks. In the 'interests of the realm', Charles delivers her to the English. During her trial for heresy, Joan, alone in her cell, struggles with her conscience (played by Hoffman). She is now unsure of her calling and her motives. Did God abandon her, or did she wage bloody war simply out of a sense of self importance? Was she really attempting to save France, or exacting revenge for her sister's murder?
Inevitably, Joan is found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. But the questions still remain.
The weaknesses in THE MESSENGER are mostly in the realm of small inaccuracies. Besson seems intent on making an enigma out of Joan, providing her with the dubious 'sign' of the sword and a very human motivation in avenging her sister. In trying to make the complex political situation manageable for a single film, he is forced to simplify and compromise. Also to this end, parts of the extensive historical record of Joan's life are skipped or glossed over. There are also several anachronistic pieces of dialogue, which are so out of place that they are jarring. The French court and army is composed of American and indestinct, generic 'European' accents, while the English forces seem entirely composed of South Londoners.
However, the film is also a rich visual feast: verdant French countrysides (actually the Czech republic); large brooding skies; etheral visions; and let us not forget the battle scenes. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (THE FIFTH ELEMENT) sweeps us right into the midst of the gruesome conflict using tight, hand-held documentary-style shots. We are right there, in the confusion of desperation, swords and axes, flying arrows and blood. Again we are reminded of the insanity of war, even in a just cause. THE MESSENGER doesn't try to to answer the riddle of Joan's life. By the end of the film we are no nearer to understanding whether this young girl was God's chosen vessel to save France, or just a naive, persuasive lunatic. But we do find ourselves captured by the art and vision of an extraordinary film maker.