Shoot The Messenger

Luc Besson throws Joan of Arc back into the fire

Luc Besson -- director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element -- is not the first name that would leap to mind to helm a biopic of Joan of Arc. Sure, he's French, and sure, most of his films have a woman or girl as protagonist or savior; but this is a guy who has dealt with spiritual matters about as much as Russ Meyer. Nonetheless, with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, he has, like so many directors before him, taken on this problematic tale. And, like most of them, he has failed.

There have been many film versions of the life of Saint Joan, and it's easy to understand why. The first part of the story -- up to and including her successful attack on the English at Orleans -- is a tony period version of Rocky: The underdog arises from the common people and achieves the impossible through sheer strength of faith. There have been almost no aesthetically satisfying versions of her life because the second part, from Orleans to her final barbecue at Rouen, is like the Gospels -- political intrigue, personal betrayal, and public execution -- but without the crucial Resurrection. And while the story of Jesus with the Resurrection may be cathartic, without it it's merely depressing.

Not counting Breaking the Waves, which could be considered a sly updating of the story, the only truly great Joan of Arc film I know -- and, in the name of full disclosure, I've never seen Robert Bresson's highly regarded 1962 version -- is Carl Theodor Dreyer's sublime La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc (1928). As a silent film, it had the distinct advantage of being freed from a dependency on words: Words enable argument; argument favors reason; reason is the enemy of faith; and faith is what the story is all about. Dreyer's film is composed almost entirely of tight close-ups of Joan and her inquisitors; its real narrative -- the inner experience of Joan's belief, torment, fall, salvation, and death -- unfolds beautifully on actress Maria Falconetti's face.

A model citizen: Milla Jovovich does what she can, but you'll never be able to save this Joan of Arc.
A model citizen: Milla Jovovich does what she can, but you'll never be able to save this Joan of Arc.


Starring Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, and Tcheky Karyo

Opens November 12

Official site

Directed by Luc Besson

Screenplay by Andrew Birkin and Luc Besson

In some ways, this is ironic, because in conventional terms, Falconetti was not the most beautiful actress to take on the role: This is no dig, given that the competition includes Ingrid Bergman (1948), Jean Seberg (1957), and now Milla Jovovich -- supermodel, actress, singer, and (until recently) wife of Luc Besson. The Messenger has its casting problems, but Jovovich is not one of them. She may be the twitchiest, most self-doubting Joan on record, but that makes her inner torment all the more compelling.

Jovovich doesn't appear until a half-hour in. First, we meet the 8-year-old Joan (Jane Valentine), a Pollyanna-ish religious zealot who deliriously dashes around the French countryside in the manner of Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp. These hills, however, are alive not with the sound of music, but with the sounds of thunder, heavenly bells, and what in one scene appear to be F-18 fighter jets.

These sounds are accompanied by visions of a character (of varying age) who certainly looks to be Jesus; in fact, he looks strikingly like Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in the 1961 King of Kings. However, he is actually -- the cast list and closing credits inform us -- The Conscience. The character of The Conscience is the most catastrophic of Besson's choices, but more of that later.

After she sees her sister murdered and raped -- in that order, sorry to say -- the semicatatonic Joan's religious ecstasies become more explicit, and before you know it, she has developed into a dazzling supermodel with a mission to save France. God orders her to speak with the Dauphin (John Malkovich), the future King Charles VII, and off to court she rides. Charles and his scheming mother-in-law (Faye Dunaway) back Joan's assault on the English stronghold at Orleans.

The battle of Orleans is the film's high point: Nobody would accuse Besson of being a slouch at staging action, though the geography of just who's attacking what from where is generally unclear. This may simply be the nature of that particular battle, since the recent TV miniseries with Leelee Sobieski had almost exactly the same problem. During these scenes, Jovovich's Joan makes the transition from spunky little babe to full-on, fiery-eyed lunatic. The French, of course, beat the English silly, which is no surprise: It's best to put your money on coffee drinkers over tea drinkers nine times out of 10. From this point on, The Messenger gets dicier. Of course, Joan is betrayed, tried, battered, and roasted -- and all the closing crawls in the world explaining how she was eventually cleared and canonized can't make this an upbeat ending.

Jovovich certainly gets to exercise her chops more than she did in her previous savior role as Leeloo in The Fifth Element, where she was pretty much limited to the Quest for Fire/Clan of the Cave Bear style of acting. Here there is something appealingly feral in her portrayal, much like Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita. Malkovich and Dunaway, both of whom have done period films before, blend into the milieu perfectly, though Malkovich's presence is slightly distracting, simply as a result of timing: The Messenger hits theaters a little too closely on the heels of Being John Malkovich, and here when he coincidentally utters a line similar to one from the other film's tag lines -- "Sometimes I wish I could be someone else" -- it evokes a giggle.

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