The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Directed by Luc Besson
Perhaps the best way to begin to discuss Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is to make clear what the film is not. The film is not a Sunday school tale or an historical reenactment. It is not the typical “Saint” story, where Joan seems in a constant state of rapture throughout the film, a problem all too frequent to religious stories. It is not Braveheart with a chick. What it is, is a visually stunning film that focuses not on Joan the Saint or Joan the martyr, but on Joan the heroine.
This is the story of a young peasant girl who is ordered by heavenly voices to wage war against the English, liberate France, and allow Charles VII to become king. She is eventually betrayed, captured, and burned at the stake. She then became on of the most beloved figures in French history and a Roman Catholic saint.
Milla Jovovich is cast as a mythological Joan, not a historically accurate one. She is the vision people want to have of France’s greatest heroine. She looks like a Romantic painting of Joan come to life. The film is about her heroism in leading the French into battle to allow Charles VII, played like a medieval Lt. Col. Henry Blake by John Malkovich, to be crowned King of France. The subsequent heresy trial and burning are secondary to director Luc Besson. The trial of Joan has traditionally been the focal point in Joan of Arc plays, novels, and films. Besson instead focuses on Joan as a military leader, relying on the voices in her head instead of strategy, and woefully ill-equipped for the realities of the war. Joan is a quintessential Besson woman, full of contradictions. She his strong yet naïve, brave yet sensitive, arrogant yet pious. This is not the Joan we are accustomed to. Most portrayals leave you wondering how she ever led anyone in out of the rain, yet alone into battle. The Messenger allows us to see that side of the legend, even at the expense of some of the grander notions of her unwavering faith. Besson sows some seeds of doubt in the part of her conscience, played by Dustin Hoffman, who forces her to evaluate her voices and her motives. Questions of why Joan would be chosen by God for such a task and why there was so much bloodshed to liberate France are answered with more questions about Joan’s own motives.
Joan purists will probably be put off by another waif in the role, not to mention the melding of her voices. Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine have been replaced by a single figure, left vague, but obviously intended to be Christ. Although this may work for more visual punch, it would play havoc in the trial scenes, which are kept to a minimum. It was one thing to say you spoke with Saint Catherine, quite another to claim you spoke with the Son of God. There are a number of other liberties taken with the facts, but the essence of Joan is quite intact.
Even those uninitiated into Joan of Arc lore will be dazzled by the film. It is a stunning piece of work. The visuals fill the screen in typical Luc Besson fashion. The battles are incredibly well staged, with surprisingly accurate weapons and tactics in play. Besson, by keeping our focus on Joan, keeps the chaos of the battles from being merely a jumble of images. Jovovich handles the physical rigors of the film better than some of the extended dialogue sequences, although she certainly held her own in that department.
I personally was very much taken with The Messenger . It was a version of the Joan of Arc legend that I have been waiting for. Nothing against the lengthy Joan trial stories, but her trial is not what made her a French folk hero; it was her exploits on the battlefield. The film may raise more theological questions than it answers, but it delivers the goods in a story of Joan the soldier, Joan the savior of France, Joan the heroine.