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Playing Joan of Arc on the stage and doing the same thing in the movies are apparently two very different things, because the role is known for defeating film actresses both great and small. Ingrid Bergman loved the part but her expensive 1948 attempt was a flop. Ten years later Otto Preminger laid a solid egg by trying out the then-inexperienced Jean Seberg in the role. Among classic films, only Falconetti in Dreyer's silent The Passion of Joan of Arc has won full marks across the board. Former model Milla Jovovich scored strongly in director Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is clearly the follow-up intended to put both her and Besson in the top tier of moviemaking.
The result didn't please the 1999 audience who, it must be said, probably weren't looking for yet another version of the Joan of Arc story. The first two thirds of the tale is an exciting war story. England invades the Continent, although it takes a while to confirm this due to a confusing expository prologue. A peasant girl dazzles France by declaring herself a messenger from God, arrived to lead her nation to victory. The battles are energetic, funny and outrageous. They're also more than a little anachronistic, with a couple of fictitious battle weapons and a general air of dizzy gallantry. Jeanne's close advisors are a quartet of soldiers and nobles as charming as the Four Musketeers. They slay the enemy practically while singing and dancing, and make it all look like good gory fun. Jeanne repeatedly warns the giant La Hire (Richard Ridings) against blaspheming, and he begins to take her seriously. French and English soldiers alike are soon convinced that Jeanne has some kind of super-spiritual powers, especially after her near-miraculous recovery from serious wounds.
The story by necessity turns dark in the latter stages. Betrayed by the monarch she has put on the throne, Jeanne is handed over to the English, who insist that The Church condemn her as a witch. Jeanne suffers doubts about her divine inspiration and her enemies ultimately burn her at the stake.
Milla Jovovich didn't earn many positive notices for her performance, which was likened by one rude reviewer to "a Valley Girl on methamphetamines". Jumpy and hypertense, Jovovich's Jeanne has nary a calm moment; she's either in full-on manic mode or in an agitated trance to convince nobles and soldiers that she means business. This interpretation of the character is reportedly not in sync with the historical Jeanne, who was calm and never described as insane or even behaving in a neurotic manner. Likewise, the real Jeanne d'Arc didn't lose a sister in a traumatic childhood incident, and she didn't rave that the English must be annihilated. She in fact showed compassion for the wounded on both sides and even protected a defeated English general. In the movie, the English are foul-mouthed Cockney barbarians with bad teeth; Jeanne would like to see them all driven into the sea.
Luc Besson's direction illustrates Joan's state of mind with representations of her visions, including a Christ figure who bleeds because she is "hurting him" by engaging in war. This is a very modern interpretation considering that the 15th century Church had its own army and even "warrior Popes". In the latter part of the picture, a distinction is made between the English invaders scheming to insure the prisoner's execution, and a ghostly "Conscience" who appears to plant doubts in Jeanne's mind. Dustin Hoffman is very effective in the role, and Besson's mental images of alternate explanations for Jeanne's "miracles" cruelly breaks down her resistance. The English and French torturers struggle to pass on responsibility for her execution, yet it's really her own imagination that does her in, as soon as God no longer appears to be on her side. Besson can update and simplify the politics and the battles, but there's not much he can do to "contemporize" the story's faith-based aspects.The movie seems to believe that Jeanne was no more than a wildly overachieving hysteric.
The story of Jeanne d'Arc remains powerful even when distorted. Besson's action direction, the art direction, the special effects for the gory battle scenes, and the performances of Jeanne's army pals Vincent Cassel, Pascal Gregory, Richard Ridings and Desmond Harrington -- these elements make The Messenger easy to recommend. I found Ms. Jovovich very impressive as Jeanne, even if her interpretation is extreme. After all, being calm and serene in the midst of all the battle carnage would seem silly. Accept Jeanne d'Arc as a twitching fanatic, and you're there.
Faye Dunaway and John Malkovich are more than acceptable as the decadent and manipulative Yolande D'Aragon and The Dauphin, royal scoundrels that exploit Jeanne's popularity and then give her to the enemy when she seems a threat to their authority. I remember audiences laughing lightly upon first hearing Dustin Hoffman's voice from under his robe, but his insinuations and arguments are an interesting alternative to the typical villains who scream threats and drool with malice. The Messenger's problem is that it can't sustain the conventional excitement and positive energy of its early chapters. Because the movie offers no particular hope for Jeanne as a saint, average audiences will find her defeat an almost total downer.
Sony's Blu-ray disc of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is a real beauty, with stunning images of beautiful French exteriors, frantic battles and Milla Jovovich herself. The early scenes with the 8-year-old Jeanne (Jane Valentine) take place in glowing wheat fields. The images of Jeanne riding to battle generate the kind the kind of thrills that left the movies decades ago -- she may be mad, but it's easy to believe that she could inspire an army.
The sharpness and detail derived from real film shot in real locations makes a difference as well. It's probably true that the image was tweaked for color and enhanced with CGI here and there, but the richness of filmed reality looks far better than the stylized, limited color experiments of heavy effects films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the more recent 300. In both those pictures, how actors were lit barely seemed to matter. In post production, most of the color was flattened into either silvery blues or golden browns.
The Blu-ray disc has no extras -- under the "special features" menu choice is only a Blu-ray preview demo.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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