What happens when you take a talented French director, his model/singer/actress wife, and one of the greatest actors of the 70s, and make a movie about one of the most renowned saints of France? You get a giant mess is what. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is loaded with lots of talented people, is filmed gorgeously, and is mostly a lousy, muddled film.
The story of Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc as they call her in France) is well known just about everywhere. Joan is a poor peasant living in a small village in France during the Hundred Years’ War with England. She begins seeing heavenly visions that tell her she is God’s messenger to rid her country of the bloody English. Somehow she convinces Charles, the Dauphin with visions of being king, to give her an army to storm Orleans. Using unconventional methods she leads her army to victory. The Dauphin is crowned king and mostly forgets about Joan. She leads an unsuccessful siege on Paris is given over to the English, tried and burned at the stake, several hundred years later she is sainted by the Catholic church. The Messenger covers most of this relatively faithfully, and beautifully.
Luc Besson is a talented director filming such classics as Le Femme Nikita (1990) and The Professional (1994). His talent is presented here in his ability to create interesting and beautiful shots but is lost in creating a cohesive story. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the story about the young saint. In parts, it seems earnest in its recreation of this revolutionary with heavenly visions, but then it sinks into a near parody of itself and in the end sinks towards a reinventing of the events themselves asking Joan herself whether or not her visions were real or mere psychosis.
Milla Jovovich is a pretty face who has mostly been in forgettable, silly comedies and the Resident Evil franchise which might as well be considered a silly comedy for all its worth. Here, she has two modes of acting, a strange amphetamine delivery of her lines as if she couldn’t spit them out fast enough, or a snarled scream as if acting was merely being the loudest person on the set. It is not a nuanced performance. For the entirety of the film, she seems completely out of place.
The battle of Orleans is tame at best. There are virtually no scenes of real ambitious spectacle. We are given nothing to inform us of her revolutionary forms of combat. Instead, her method seems to be screaming a lot and jumping a horse over the enemy’s fence. Later the storming of Paris is so humorous it is sad. Joan screams and screams that she needs backup while a few soldiers randomly knock on what must be the Paris gates. These soldiers are so bewildered a pathetic looking they seem more out of a Monty Python sketch than a serious film about war.
Beyond the visual elements, the only saving grace is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the Grand Inquisitor or Conscience. It is a fine performance from a fine actor, but it is a peculiar character. He spends his time questioning Joan’s own sanity. Could her visions in fact be some form of psychosis or fantasy? Could crucial moments in her life like finding a sword in a field in fact be a simple coincidence? Good questions in the history of the real Joan of Arc, but they seem out of place here. Nowhere in the film are we led to believe Joan is nothing but the real thing. Why bring these questions into play during its climactic ending?
The film would have worked much better by believing wholeheartedly in Joan’s purpose and vision. Or questioning her visions from the beginning, a revisioning of the myth could be very interesting. Instead, it kicks its legs out from under itself by bringing her into question so late in the film.
What we get in this portrayal of Joan of Arc is some pretty visuals and a fine performance from Dustin Hoffman. Try renting one of Luc Besson’s earlier films and pick up anything from Hoffman’s heyday in the 70s, they will be worth your dollar and your time far more than anything thing to be found here.