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The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

movie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

Starring: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich
Director: Luc Besson
Rated: R
RunTime: 145 Minutes
Release Date: November 1999
Genres: Action, Drama


*Also starring: Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Desmond Harrington, Timothy West



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The latest food fight between France and England appears to be about the quality of beef, but look below the surface and you may find the talk of boycotts and vengeance to be little more than an excuse to communicate hostility. I suspect that the folks in these two neighboring countries don't like one another very much. Given the length of European memories, who could blame them? The two formerly great powers have been at each other's throats a number of times during the past millennium dating back at least to the 14th century when they fought the so-called Hundred Years' War. Who today sides with the French in that disaster? Among others, Luc Besson is one--naturally--and he directs "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" with a decidedly Francophile bent. The English are portrayed as a bunch of sadists with caricatured features, full of obscene speech and reckless taunts, in one case even engaging in a mind- boggling act of necrophilism.

Though not the first version of the epic story of the teen- aged heroine who inspired her people to victory against the invaders, Besson's "Joan" has a distinctly 1990s flair, pandering to the MTV generation with swiftly-edited flashbacks and surreal visions, abandoning poetic pretensions in favor of a simple, rustic dialogue. To his inestimable credit, however, Besson--whose contributions to cinema include the dazzling "La femme Nikita" (about yet another sort of puckish French heroine)--avoids the excesses of Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet," an all-out kowtow to teens and 20-somethings. By genuflecting to modernity in language and cinematography within moderation, Besson bestows on us the most audience-friendly and humorous of cinema and TV's productions about the legendary French fighter. If Milla Jovovich, who dominates the 140-minute film, looks older than the nineteen-year-old she plays, that flaw can be easily overlooked when we consider that her passionate performance is nuanced enough to give us pause. After viewing "The Messenger," we wonder whether one of French history's greatest persons, who was made a saint half a millennium after her noble needs, may have been not so much a devout visionary but an out-and-out lunatic, even a schizophrenic--her disabilities actually contributing to her heroism.

Photographed in the Czech Republic and in the Loire Valley region of France, Besson's rendition of the familiar tale selectively runs through aspects of Joan's life that every schoolchild used to know by heart. At the time of Joan's birth in Domeremy 1412 or thereabouts, the French and the English were in the midst of a Hundred Years' War. While English invaders were harassing French soldiers, the region now known as France was undergoing a civil war of its own, the province of Burgundy actually fighting on the English side. Charles VII is intent on holding on to the territory under his command and on being crowned king by the Church in the traditional manner, in the city of Rheims--now under English control. Nothing short of a miracle appears able to liberate Rheims from the invader, and Joan is to supply that marvel.

When Joan as a young girl witnesses the burning of her village by the English and the rape-murder of her beloved sister by a crazed English soldier, she is bent on vengeance against all the enemy and, devout though she may be is unable to forgive or to turn the other cheek. Five years after the trauma, Joan (Milla Jovovich) is determined to raise an army under her command, but to do so she needs to convince Charles, the Dauphin (John Malkovich), to turn his army over to her command. By this time, Joan has become known throughout her world as the woman who hears the voice of God commanding her to throw the invaders out. Convincing Charles of her mandate, she gets the army, fights fiercely in vigorously photographed battles, but at the very point at which Paris is within her grasp, she is sold out by the now crowned King Charles VII--who is tired of her ravings and eager to end hostilities against the English by diplomatic compromise. What happens to Joan after that is the stuff of legend or chronicle, depending on your feelings about the accuracy of the historical record.

Though Milla Jovovich looks older and more sophisticated than the illiterate 19-year-old peasant, she performs her role well, with an acting range that goes from off-the-wall dementia to testosterone-flamed semi-lunacy. Jovovich, not a well-known performer except to those who remember her from Spike Lee's "He Got Game" and Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element," seems to have captured Joan's fire and, for all we know, her outrageous visions that in a person of lesser scope would be dismissed as schizoid ravings. John Malkovich at Charles VII provides much of the comic relief as the man who would be king even if the coronation results in a sell-out of his adjunct. Being John Malkovich, he is alternately coy, befuddled, weak-willed and amusing. I suspect, though, that audience judgments about this latest "Joan" will depend on its tolerance, nay its enthusiasm or lack of same, for Besson's determined modernization. Though the MTV-like flashbacks lack variety and the images of God appearing first as rays of light piercing fast-moving clouds, then as an actual, human Jesus caressing His messenger, may strike some as kitsch, I found myself sponging up the director's conceits throughout. My view is this: if in the 15th century, the characters in the armies would appear all-too-human, their language filled with the local slang and colloquialisms, why not translate those signs into the current vernacular--even utilizing expressions as obnoxious as this century's favorite filler, "y'know"? If the armies react to the burning arrows and speeding horses with wide-eyed, caricatured wonder, why not come right out and show the battle-weary troops with all their exaggerated gestures and tics?

The redesign works best in three scenes. In one, a bloodthirsty, barbaric English soldier, impatient with his squirming rape victim, plunges a sword through her middle and proceeds to rape the lifeless body to the amazed stares of his slightly less brutal compatriots. In another, Joan is severely wounded by an arrow fired at close range as she is ascending the fortress walls of the English. She falls twenty- five feet into the hands of her fellow soldiers in much the way a modern-day purveyor of weekend "trust" seminars would allow herself to plop limply and happily into the waiting arms of her pals-in-therapy. An extended scene between the imprisoned Joan and her Conscience (Dustin Hoffman) allows the viewers to raise doubts in their own minds about the validity of Joan's visions and her motivations.

When Aristophanes penned the play "Lysistrata" some two and one-half millennia ago--a comedy about how the Greek women locked their husbands out of their bedrooms until the men lay down their arms--he hinted that wars and violence are the exclusive province of the testosterone-bearers. If true, credit Joan as an exception. If women must occasionally lead the men into the fray, the cause, though, would have to be just, the women convinced of its rightness. Luc Besson adds to this contention with a film that does not have the grandeur, the poetry, the range of "Lawrence of Arabia" but makes up for its shortcomings by being eminently user-friendly.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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