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The Messenger


I know little about the life of Joan of Arc, but she always seemed to me a rather dubious saint. The extent of my knowledge told me that her holiness was predicated on thinking that God would care how much territory was claimed by a medieval French monarch locked in opposition with the English.

The new movie by French director Luc Besson, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Sony Pictures), sidesteps that issue, never questioning the worthiness of its heroine’s cause, but rather her violent methods and her sanity.

We first see Jeanne, as she is called by her French name in this English-language movie, as a child (Jane Valentine) at confession with the kindly village priest. She tells him of the visions she has of a boy who tells her to “be good and help everyone.” After receiving absolution, she ecstatically runs through the fields.

But her joy turns to a nightmarish vision that segues to reality as the English attack her village. Jeanne witnesses her sister being raped and killed, thus providing her with a clear-cut motive for revenge that underlies her later doggedness in pursuing a military campaign against the English.

Her sister’s death transforms the innocent child, and the young actress projects a formidable glower. Her visions have turned dark, but her religious dedication remains passionate. In Jeanne’s last scene as a child, we see her, impatient to receive her first Eucharist, running up to the altar of a church, pouring wine into the chalice and speaking to the crucifix: “I want to be one with you now.” In a piece of heavy-handed symbolism, the wine spills all over her face like blood.

That child, I could believe, might harness her visions to lead armies. It would have been interesting to see her descend into madness. Unfortunately, when we see Jeanne again, Valentine is replaced by grown actress Milla Jovovich, whose Jeanne is alternately tremulous, tearful, petulant and hysterical -- more childish than the child. It’s less interesting dramatically to see someone constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown finally cross the line and lose touch with reality, as Jovovich’s Jeanne does.

In the meantime, it is difficult to comprehend why the French soldiers so quickly accept her command. When one battle-hardened soldier declares, “I would follow her into hell,” I didn’t know why. Jeanne demonstrates a certain crazed persistence, but no leadership qualities are communicated by the script or the actress, who is encumbered by twitchy mannerisms and a voice that squeaks out of control when she shouts commands.

Director Besson does effectively dramatize her visions in a visual style that is the most striking aspect of the movie. We first see the central figure in her visions as a boy. Later he becomes a grown Jesus-like figure who Jeanne believes has told her to set the Dauphin on the throne of France. But in the midst of battle, blood begins to pour down the man’s face, and he cries to Jeanne, “What are you doing to me?” The man continues to age, and, played by Dustin Hoffman, he becomes the voice of reason debating Jeanne’s interpretations of her visions.

It struck me as odd that her hallucination actually provides the sane viewpoint, as Jeanne becomes more and more delusional, but the identity of the three figures in these visions -- only learned by watching the credits -- makes the development a little clearer.

The movie clearly wishes to say that Jeanne’s most grievous misinterpretation of her visions was to think that violence was necessary. But as is often the case with war movies, the film seems to want it both ways -- shake your head over the loss of life, but show battles that had the audience cheering for blood. The English are portrayed, without exception, as sneering, nasty, bloodthirsty and blasphemous. An effort to humanize the enemy goes a long way to making an anti-war message convincing, but “The Messenger” does not try.

The movie is beautifully filmed. Some of the supporting characters are worth watching. John Malkovich portrays the Dauphin, later King Charles VII, as indecisive and easily swayed, and Faye Dunaway is good but underused as Charles’ steely, pragmatic mother-in-law. Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who interrogates Jeanne on behalf of the English, receives a sympathetic interpretation by Timothy West. Cauchon is surprisingly compassionate, doing what he can to save Jeanne until, Pilate-like, he absolves himself of responsibility for her death.

Unfortunately, none of these elements makes up for an awkward, often corny script, and, ultimately, its shaky center in Jeanne herself.

Teresa Malcolm is assistant news editor for NCR. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999