The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Directed by Luc Besson
Review by Matt Heffernan
World cinema is an interesting thing. American films dominate the market in nearly every country, regardless of the native language. Some foreign directors have decided, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." The most notable example is Luc Besson, who makes very French films, but in English so that they have a better chance of international success. It started in 1994 with Léon (The Professional), then The Fifth Element in 1997. Now he makes a film about Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) in France, but in English with mostly Amercian actors, and his Ukranian wife (at the time), Milla Jovovich, playing the medieval heroine.
In case you need a refresher in European history, I'll recap the story of Jeanne d'Arc. As a young girl, she had visions of leading France to victory against an invading England. Henry IV of England was to inherit France after the death of their king. But, they died at about the same time, so France's sovereignty was in question during the early 15th century. Henry V decided to take what he felt was a birthright, while the heir apparent Dauphin Charles (John Malkovich) decided to fight. As a teen, Jeanne came to Charles, claiming that she was on a mission from God (you know, like the Blues Brothers) to restore France and to crown the dauphin King Charles VII.
She convinces him to let her lead the army that takes back Orleans. After she is successful, instead of having a hero's welcome, she is snubbed by the throne, and not given the proper support for taking the rest of France, because the new king figures victory is well at hand. So, the English capture the vulnerable Jeanne, and try her before the church for heresy. I know I'm not giving away anything by telling you that she is convicted and burned at the stake. Five hundred years later, the Catholic Church swallowed their pride and canonized her.
So, we have a very familiar story that was made into a TV mini-series earlier this year. Besson is a very good director and screenwriter, but you wouldn't know that from watching this film. The biggest count against it is the horribly inane dialogue. It was like watching a very high-budget war re-enactment, written by the historical society of some little town. There wasn't much of an incentive to root for the French when everything they say is laughably stupid. Shakespeare's Henry V gives a much more compelling argument for the other side, so I'm with The Bard on this one.
It also doesn't help that the film was a full hour too long. Besson really wanted to make an epic here, but should have realized that the material was spread way too thin. This falls into the same trap as John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, where they padded out the film with battle scenes that are well photographed, but poorly composed. With no attachment to the characters, we don't care whether they live or die. So after a bunch of boring war footage, we have a stretched-out ending that has Jeanne confronting her conscience, personified by Dustin Hoffman, who was completely wasted. However, that wasn't as tragic as seeing Malkovich playing a distorted version of himself brilliantly in Being John Malkovich just last week, and to follow it up with a handful of uninspired scenes from this film.
Of course, it turns out that the biggest mistake Besson made was writing this in English. So you have the French people speaking English, and the English people speaking English, and everybody communicating as if there was no language barrier. It's just another example of laziness by the director. He should have looked back on Jean Renoir's Le grande illusion, which understood that audiences are intelligent enough to watch a film that is half-subtitled, even completely subtitled (which is how we see it in America). Personally, I don't blame Jovovich for divorcing him after this.
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The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan