Classic Film Review: The Fine Madness that was “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”(1999)

Historical dramas are as much a reflection of their times as those they’re bringing back to life on the screen. That’s one reason why the many versions of the life and martyrdom of Joan of Arc play like harsh judgements on the character of France, especially in the “Joan” the films made outside of France.

When French action auteur Luc Besson took on the subject in the late 1990s, turning it into a star vehicle for his then-very young wife Milla Jovovich, it promised to be something new. No heavenly light beaming down on the future “Saint Joan,” no saintly Ingrid Bergman or Jean Seberg, but with perhaps a touch of “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece (starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti).

“Excalibur” had forever raised the bar on depictions of Medieval combat, so it was sure to be grim, bloody and personal as The 100 Years War played out here. And a Frenchman, albeit one with plenty of bones to pick with his native land, might go easier on the French crown and the French clergy in casting blame for the teenaged martrys’ fate in this international production. It’s the English who wanted her dead more than anyone else, lest we forget.

“The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” became a sprawling, historical and occasionally ahistorical rendition of the character and her mercurial rise to fame and glory, and her execution for “heresy” at the age of 19.

Jovovich, then best-known for “Return to the Blue Lagoon” and Besson’s madcap sci-fi “The Fifth Element,” portrays Jeanne d’Arc as touched with madness, overwhelmed by the battles she was ill-prepared to find herself fighting. Her wild-eyed lashing-out seems even more pronounced by the ways she’s photographed, often in extreme close-up in the most extreme situations, a delusional schizophrenic trying to reconcile “the voice” she’s hearing with her faith and her homeland’s military and existential crisis.

Seen now, Jovovich’s take comes off as perhaps the best way to imagine Joan — pious, self-righteous and perhaps a tad deranged. She was a child “playing” a part, feigning bravado, a teenaged egoist grabbing her people’s attention and inspiring them because she believed so fervently that she made them believe, in turn. Jovovich, who aged into a decent actress trapped in a lucrative, long-running B-movie action franchise later, seems properly overwhelmed and overmatched as “The Messenger.”

The screenplay may fictionalize how Joan was “made” this way — witnessing her older sister’s rape and murder at the hands of the English (never happened). But this written and performed interpretation does a better job of explaining this historical figure without the gift of supernaturalism.

Take the way Besson, whose “The Transporter” movies and “The Fifth Element” gave him license to try his hand at “epic,” introduces Joan as a teen to the dauphin, the French King to be. There’s all this hand-wringing and worry by Charles (John Malkovich, terrific), his mother-in-law (Faye Dunaway, alarming) and the bishops and knights of his court about whether he should “receive” this already-famous teen.

Jovovich’s first appearance on screen here is a “star entrance,” and whatever her impact on the cynics of the court, the viewing audience and Charles are quite bowled-over by this confident, monomaniacal madwoman of faith. They’ve heard her reputation and respect it, they all say. She’s not having it.

“There’s nothing to hear! And why is there nothing to hear? Because I haven’t DONE anything! And why haven’t I done anything? Because none of you WILL LISTEN TO ME!”

Charles, with the English claiming the throne he can’t just take as his own, does listen and gambles on her charisma. Next thing we know, she’s running riot amongst the increasingly exasperated — and amusingly-resigned knights (the wonderful Tchéky Karyo and Vincent Cassel) who find themselves under her command, if not in her thrall the way their army is.

Besson depicts this signature siege of Orleans, so central to Joan’s legend, as result of a bit of luck, some pluck and ingenuity, and some genuine fanatical bravery. It’s an “El Cid” moment, Washington at Monmouth Courthouse, a battle turned by force of will and personality and a leader’s impact on morale.

It is spectacularly-rendered, and utterly believable here, with Jovovich showing us Joan’s confusion, grief and almost psychotic disconnect from what she’s unleashed.

But as with every telling of this time-honored story, we know this is the peak. Backroom politics, Catholic intrigues and backbiting and buck-passing, a public trial and a burning at the stake are to come.

Besson’s cleverest third act touch is putting a face on a “new” voice in Joan’s head. We haven’t heard what she’s said she hears, haven’t seen a miracle manifest itself in giving her this “mission.”

Dustin Hoffman’s casting as “The Conscience,” a cowled, bearded visitor who questions Joan using the Socratic Method, testing her faith, her memories and the illiterate’s knowledge of God as a means of questioning her motives, is telling. He is Jewish, and his appearance here screams “OLD TESTAMENT.” This is Joan’s true judgement, whether or not she passes muster with her own sense of piety and devotion, not the verdict of a compliant religious court.

That’s a self-consciously theatrical choice on the part of the filmmaker, something we’ve seen or picked up hints of in stage interpretations of this story. The difference here is that it’s the acting titan Dustin Hoffman bearing down on Milla Jovovich’s psyche and youth. It could have played as campy, but instead it is unsettling, dismantling, and it works.

The film’s bracing opening scenes let up a bit as Besson falls all over himself to build up that “star entrance” for his wife. But Jovovich shows up, takes over and carries the picture and herself as if she, like Joan, is unsure of what she’s doing, unfamiliar with the spotlight and unaware of how crazy the right lens can make her look. Not that either character or actress, often bathed in blood and mud and madness, seem to care.

I’ve always thought there was too much to admire in this somewhat (not as widely as you remember) maligned overreach of an epic to simply write it off. Judging from the “Joans” that have followed it (a two-part French film in 2019 that failed), “The Messenger” feels more and more like a classic, a modern twist on the sort of old-fashioned epic that occasionally thrills, and always invites us to lose ourself in another time with another take on a character we long ago figured was simply chiseled in stone.

Rating: R for strong graphic battles, a rape and some language

Cast: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Tchéky Karyo, Vincent Cassel and Dustin Hoffman.

Credits: Directed by Luc Besson, scripted by Andrew Birkin and Luc Besson.

Running time: 2:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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