Rated R - Running Time: 3:00 - Released 11/12/99

Joan of Arc is probably the most venerated figure in French history. One would expect that a film of her life, an entirely French production, with a French writer/director and an all-French crew, would be pretty much the authoritative voice on the subject. And indeed, from what I have seen in the trailers, I expected Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc to be one of the major Oscar contenders this year. But while things like cinematography and costume design (by Thierry Arbogast and Catherine Leterrier, respectively) will probably get the nod, and some actors may possibly garner nominations for their work, I can't imagine the film academy seriously considering this as a possible best picture or best director or best screenplay nominee. Everything about this film is inconsistent, from the language to the tone to the special effects. I can't figure out how Besson wants us to feel about his national heroine, but the screenplay by him and Andrew Birkin doesn't paint her in a very sympathetic light.

This three-hour historical marathon is not the first collaboration between Ukranian model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich and writer/director Besson. However, while The Fifth Element (1997) took place 250 years in the future, The Messenger goes twice as far in the opposite direction. In 1420, at the tender age of eight, Joan has already proven herself to be a terribly devout little girl, spending all her free time in the church and confessing several times a day, whether she has anything to confess or not. At 16, after a life of visions and voices, she seeks an audience with Charles VII, the dauphin of what's left of war-torn France (John Malkovich). Impressed with her enthusiasm (not to mention her ability to pick him out of a crowd without ever having met him), Charles allows Joan what she wants: command of the entire French army. Before long, even though she is merely a teenage girl, Joan has led the outnumbered army to victory over the English at Orleans, a critical turning point in the 100 Years' War.

Joan rides high on the wave of fame that comes from her uncanny leadership abilities, and garners the undying love and respect of the army and people of France. But after Charles is crowned king, he no longer needs or desires her services. He cuts off her supplies and finances, and without an adequate army, she suffers a devastating loss attempting to reclaim Paris. She is taken prisoner, raped, and accused of heresy for her steadfast belief that she is an instrument of God. Though she is still loved by her people, Joan cannot deny her voices, and on May 30, 1431, only 19 years old, she is burned at the stake. Five hundred years later, in 1920, she is canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

This is undoubtedly one of the most amazing stories in written history, and this is why I am so surprised that Besson could not muster a better way of telling it. Visually, and in terms of scope and historical significance, his film deserves to be seen, but there are gross errors in continuity and writing style. The script is peppered with anachronistic phrases like "she's nuts" and "calm down." One character has a scar on his face, but it appears to be of a different size, color, and location every time he is on screen. In the many bloody battle scenes, the severing of limbs and heads look like something out of Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is Jovovich's interpretation of the famous Maid of Orleans. She comes on strong in the first two-thirds of the film, showing Joan's unwavering faith in God and herself, but near the end devolves into a confused, simpering high school girl. This is not really the actress's fault, though. A character is introduced late in the film, portrayed by none other than Dustin Hoffman (he's never appeared so out of place), that is supposed to represent Joan's conscience. To the complete discredit of her famous story, he actually seems to make light of her life and her predicament, and the script and Besson's directing choices seem to want us to join in the laughter. In the final analysis, the film seems to be saying that Joan was merely a deluded girl who was mistaken about her destiny, that she was not sent by God, and that burning at the stake was probably the best thing for her.

Huh? ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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