The Messenger: The Story
of Joan of Arc
Note: the comment contains spoilers.
I just saw The Messenger, and I am in wholehearted agreement with much of your review. The film is jarringly inconsistent in tone and glosses over key elements of the story–for example, we skip from Joan the child to Joan the warrior who is already famous among "the simple people" and known to the Dauphin. Where is Joan's charisma? Who would actually follow this pipsqueak into battle? Luc Besson manages to rob the tale of much of its inherent drama, which, in the case of the story of Joan of Arc, is pretty difficult to do.
I didn't like it, but also I didn't hate it as much as you. Luc Besson, when he's not assaulting our senses, does have an original spin on Joan. Coming from a Frenchman, The Messenger is a remarkably ambivalent portrayal of a national hero. Besson gives us a conflicted and warlike Joan instead of a beatific and pious victim, and this I found interesting–to a point.
Besson's take on the story is that Joan may have misinterpreted the visions she did have. Unlike most reviewers, I liked the scenes with Dustin Hoffman as her inner conscience. Does God truly want war and bloodshed? Is this an Old Testament or a New Testament God? To paraphrase one of the central conflicts of The Last Temptation of Christ, is God's instrument love, or the axe? Besson is not debunking the legend and martyrdom of Joan (according to him, she did have the visions, she was a strong leader, and her execution was definitely unjust), but he attempts to show a human being beneath the quasi-mythical figure.
Unfortunately, as you so well describe, Joan the human being often gets lost in the bombast, and the choice of Besson's then-trophy girlfriend to play Joan is unfortunate. But perhaps the greatest weakness of the movie is that Besson's entire portrayal of Joan the conflicted visionary–yes, the part that I liked–is built on a fictitious and facile pop-psychology premise: that Joan was bloodthirsty because she saw her sister being raped and killed by English soldiers. First of all, in modern storytelling, why must there always be a single event in someone's childhood that explains all her future motivations and dysfunctions? I'm so tired of this Prince of Tides approach to character development. Life is more complex than that. Second, English soldiers did not sack and burn Domremy, but Burgundians. Although Burgundy was independent at the time, Burgundians were basically French.
I am willing to believe that there was a conflicted soul inhabiting the body of this legendary figure, and Besson's effort to study that soul is interesting. But his portrayal of the historical personage herself is ludicrous. By all historical accounts, the outward Joan came across as anything but the confused and demented Joan we see in The Messenger. If she had, would anyone have accepted her as a leader? Would her contemporaries have hailed her as a selfless saint and liberator of France? Doubtful. Besson also fails to make use of the transcripts of Joan's trial, during which she described her visions in detail, particularly her encounters with Saints Michel, Margaret, and Catherine. In the movie her visions consist mostly of rushing clouds, and she refuses to discuss them at the trial. Why not make use of the available historical documents? Why not use Joan's own words to paint her character?
To top it all off, Besson does a poor job of recreating a late Medieval/early Renaissance universe. The film never once appears to be informed by anything other than contemporary thought and interpretation, designed to make the story accessible to a modern audience. As a historical study, The Messenger is outrageous. Without a medieval socio-historical context and belief system, the story of Joan is sapped of much of its meaning. But because Besson did bring something new to the table, because the production values are high, because the movie is entertaining to a degree, and because Jovovich's cheekbones are pretty damn fine, I would rate The Messenger a C- instead of a D.
Note: Carlo is an AboutFilm.Com contributor.
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