The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
1999, R, 148 min. Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Desmond Harrington, Richar Didings, Tcheky Karyo, Vincent Cassel, Pascal Gregory, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, John Malkovich, Milla Jovovich.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 12, 1999
As the oft-told tale of France's teenage savior retold as a pop comic book, Besson's film is pure eye candy and sure to outrage more than a few historical purists. If you can manage to get by the jarringly contemporary mien of The Messenger, though, you'll find a psychological action film with a conscience -- literally. That conscience, belonging to the 19-year-old illiterate peasant girl Jean (Jovovich), crops up midway through, after a frazzled Jean has routed the villainous English from Orleans and suddenly realizes she's both figuratively and literally drenched in the blood of her countrymen. Taking the form first of a small child, then of a thirtysomething Christ, and finally, oddly, of Dustin Hoffman, this conscience goads and taunts Jean while she waits for more messages from the Lord -- when they fail to come, her conscience methodically strips away her youthful zealot's idealism, leaving little more than a lean, mean, unrepentant weeping machine. Frankly, I don't recall reading about any crisis of faith in the form of Dustin Hoffman savaging the savior of France in my high school history courses, but then again medieval French history was never my strong suit. Far more interesting to have had The Conscience whisper “plastics” in her ear, but then I suppose that would be Monty Python's version of the tale. Besson loves his native history wide and loud and, apparently, surreal, and so we are treated to endless scenes of young Jean flopped out in the rolling fields as the supposedly divine sword of the righteous is cast down before her while clouds roll ominously overhead and a phantom wind stirs the trees. The voice of God or just another neurotic peasant girl born too soon for the Smiths to console her? The world will forever be divided on that, but not Besson, who sides with the angels on this one, and forges a film so over-the-top it's closer to pop-cult punch of the The Fifth Element than any telling of Jean's story we've seen so far. Taken at face value, it's occasionally fun, more often silly, especially with the lippy pout of Jovovich in the title role. It's impossible to take the actress seriously in this presumptuously deep role when she's continually scrunching up her sexy, androgynous face and going through whole-body shudders; that's not God, that's a multiple orgasm. Malkovich, as King Charles VII, is better suited to the task of historical melodrama, but not by much. His fey effeminacy is suited to the role of the boy king, but that accent (due west of Malkoville, N.Y., if I recall) will sadly always put him out of the range of the vocally neutral. Besson loves his violence almost as much as he loves his leading lady, and so we are witness to all manner of pulped noggins and siege-engine injuries, frequently the most interesting things in the film. Clearly, Besson has tried to capture the glory of Jean d'Arc for a new, MTV-weaned generation of Francophiles, and if watching Jovovich rain gobs of kitty-in-heat estrogen for two and a half hours is going to get kids to grok French history, so be it. Me, I just want to take her to dinner and a movie.