The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)


By Beth Armitage

Early on in the very long (2 hour and 21 minutes) Luc Besson film, The Messenger, John Malkovich (playing Charles, Dauphin of France) wishes he could be someone else. It was the one and only time that I identified with anything in the film — I wished I could watch him be someone else! Like himself in Being John Malkovich. The Messenger is an unbelievably dull movie, which is a startling achievement given that the legend of Joan of Arc lends itself pretty well to storytelling of any type.

Was Joan of Arc delusional? A true Messenger of God? I don’t know, but I am quite sure that director Luc Besson is loopy. Mix a nationalistic epic with some odd sitcom-y schtick, add in a message about the nature of faith (Keep it! Even though organized religion and Kings might muck it up!) and some pop psychology (Joan suffers from survivor’s guilt — her sister is brutally killed by English troops after giving Joan her hiding place), sprinkle liberally with battle scenes and intensely bad acting by Milla Jovovich (Joan of Arc), and voila! You have The Messenger, a movie that’s full of activity but confused and very shallow.

Milla Jovovich, who mutates from L’Oreal spokesperson to Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike for her role here, seems to have had one too many triple-shot espressos before every scene. She over-acts her way through The Messenger as if William Shatner was her acting coach (“You! English! Bastard! You! Killed! My! Sister!”). The most interesting question about the saint is the “is she or isn’t she” one — messenger of God or delusional teen? The Messenger largely ignores this dramatic mother lode, though Joan herself has moments of self-doubt when her trial is at hand. (Dustin Hoffman arrives to harass her, dressed like a druid and billed as her conscience [!], but he is clearly meant to be God. Who wouldn’t re-think things in that event?)

Instead, the film focuses on the far less interesting themes of unquestioned nationalism and religious fervor, which can still make for a good, old-fashioned epic. The problem is that The Messenger isn’t even a very good epic. The actors must have been given conflicting advice about what kind of film they were making — one minute they are all serious about the business of war and saving France for the (Catholic) French, the next minute they’re all rolling their eyes and shrugging at that wacky Joan and her madcap ways.

The film also seems confused visually. Besson makes use of lots of film tricks and camera swirling during battles and Joan’s divine “communications,” but to questionable ultimate purpose. The only clear decision (aside from hiring Shatner as coach) appears to be this: point the camera at severed heads, flaming arrows, and catapults whenever possible. And hey, I like a good severed head as much as the next desensitized-to-violence filmgoer, but not when focusing on it seems to be the only unmistakable direction given in a film.

So, while we see a lot of Joan’s piety, her “visions,” and the lethal combo of the two (as these are acted out in the battle scenes), The Messenger doesn’t waste any time helping us believe that young Joan is not simply nuts. It quickly establishes her legendary status in France (we skip from girlhood to her arrival at Charles’ court, filled in on the fact of her legend by his mother-in-law, played by Faye Dunaway in a kind of Mommy-Dearest meets Wicked Step-Mother role) without showing why she inspires such devotion in her followers. Her eventual betrayal by Charles and resulting martyrdom therefore simply don’t resonate. In fact, Joan’s appearance in the film seems an excuse for large scale battle scenes and dream-sequence type “creativity” (speeded up shots of moving clouds, a scary looking Jesus-type figure covered in blood). The story of Joan of Arc remains secondary to the elements that make up that story — the violence, the veneration, the special effects. I have the distinct feeling that Besson may not have seen the forest for the trees. It may have been fun for the director to play with new toys during the production of The Messenger, but that doesn’t end up being enough to make a good film.

The film did, however, seem to bring out religious feeling in my companions, who murmured, “dear God” and “God save us” periodically during the viewing. Everyone was greatly relived when Joan was finally burned at the stake, thus ending our ordeal.

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