Co-written and directed by Luc Besson

Nov 10, 1999 at 4:00 am
Luc Besson, director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element, is not the first name that would leap to mind to helm a biopic of Joan of Arc. Sure, he's French, and sure, most of his films have women/girls as protagonist or savior; but this is a guy who has dealt with spiritual matters about as much as Russ Meyer. Nonetheless, with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, he has, like so many directors before him, taken on this problematic tale; also like most of them, he has failed.

There have been many film versions of the life of St. Joan, and it's easy to understand why. The first part of the story -- up to and including her successful attack on the English at Orleans -- is a tony period version of Rocky: The underdog arises from the common people and achieves the impossible through sheer strength of faith.

There have been almost no aesthetically satisfying versions of her life because the second part, from Orleans to her final barbecue at Rouen, is like the Gospels -- political intrigue, personal betrayal and public execution -- but without the crucial resurrection. And although the story of Jesus with the resurrection may be cathartic, without it it's merely depressing.

Not counting Breaking the Waves, which could be considered a sly updating of the story, the only truly great Joan of Arc film I know -- and, in the name of full disclosure, I've never seen Robert Bresson's highly regarded 1962 version, Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc -- is Carl Theodor Dreyer's sublime La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc (1928). As a silent film, it had the distinct advantage of being freed from a dependency on words: Words enable argument; argument favors reason; reason is the enemy of faith; and faith is what the story is all about. Dreyer's film is composed almost entirely of tight closeups of Joan and her inquisitors; its real narrative -- the inner experience of Joan's belief, torment, fall, salvation and death -- unfolds beautifully on actress Maria Falconetti's face.

In some ways, this is ironic because, in conventional terms, Falconetti was not the most beautiful actress to take on the role: This is no dig, given that the competition includes Ingrid Bergman (1948), Jean Seberg (1957) and now Milla Jovovich -- supermodel, actress, singer and (until recently) wife of Luc Besson. The Messenger has its casting problems, but Jovovich is not one of them. She may be the twitchiest, most self-doubting Joan on record, but that makes her inner torment all the more compelling. Jovovich doesn't appear until a half-hour in. First, we meet the 8-year-old Joan (Jane Valentine), a Pollyanna-ish religious zealot who deliriously dashes around the French countryside in the manner of Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp. These hills, however, are alive not with the sound of music but, rather, with the sounds of thunder, heavenly bells and what in one scene appear to be F-18 fighter jets.

These sounds are accompanied by visions of a character (of varying age) who certainly looks to be Jesus; in fact, he looks strikingly like Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in the 1961 King of Kings. However, he is actually -- the cast list and closing credits inform us -- the Conscience. The character of the Conscience is the most catastrophic of Besson's choices, but more on that later.

After seeing her sister murdered and raped -- in that order, sorry to say -- the semicatatonic Joan's religious ecstasies become more explicit, and before you know it, she has developed into a dazzling supermodel with a mission to save France. God orders her to speak with the Dauphin (John Malkovich), the future King Charles VII, and off to court she rides. Charles and his scheming mother-in-law (Faye Dunaway) back Joan's assault on the English stronghold at Orleans.

The battle of Orleans is the film's high point: Nobody would accuse Besson of being a slouch at staging action, though the geography of just who's attacking what from where is generally unclear. This may simply be the nature of that particular battle; the recent TV miniseries with Leelee Sobieski had almost exactly the same problem. During these scenes, Jovovich's Joan makes the transition from spunky little babe to full-on, fiery-eyed lunatic. The French, of course, beat the English silly, which is no surprise: It's best to put your money on coffee drinkers over tea drinkers, nine times out of 10.

From this point on, The Messenger gets dicier. Although historical accuracy is not the first priority in epics, Besson really pushes the envelope when he has King Charles pardon her at the last minute, personally ride to Rouen to rescue her and bring her to court as his concubine.

Ha, ha. Just kidding. Of course, he does no such thing. Joan is betrayed, tried, battered and roasted -- and all the closing crawls in the world explaining how she was eventually cleared and canonized can't make this an upbeat ending.

Jovovich certainly gets to exercise her chops more than she did in her previous savior role as Leeloo in The Fifth Element, where she was pretty much limited to the Quest for Fire/Clan of the Cave Bear style of acting. Here there is something appealingly feral in her portrayal, much like Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita.

Malkovich and Dunaway, both of whom have done period films before, blend into the milieu perfectly, though Malkovich's presence is slightly distracting, simply as a result of timing: The Messenger hits theaters a little too closely on the heels of Being John Malkovich, and when he coincidentally utters a line similar to one from the other film's tag lines -- "Sometimes I wish I could be someone else" -- it evokes a giggle.

This is nothing, however, compared to the outright belly laughs elicited by the movie's other bit of star casting. Shortly before the end -- as Joan mopes in her cell and asks for a message from God -- she is revisited by the Conscience, now, for whatever reason, portrayed as a middle-aged man. And at this moment, The Messenger skids onto Airplane! turf, because ... the Conscience is played by Dustin Hoffman. Poor Joan is in the throes of a crisis of faith, and who does God send? A 60-ish 5-foot-4 Jew with an American accent, all done up as if it's Halloween, and he's going trick-or-treating as Obi-Wan Kenobi, to boot. It's Ratso Rizzo in Rouen ... Rain Man in robes.

It's ludicrous, is what it is. It's not so much the Jewishness, though Hoffman's voice and intonations evoke memories of Mel Brooks' take on Joan of Arc. ("She used to say to me, "I gotta save France.' I used to say, "Look. I gotta to wash up. You save France, and I'll see you later. After you save France, I'll wash up, ya know.' Her in her way, me in mine.") But Hoffman is so recognizably, distractingly himself and so irrevocably modern. Like Al Pacino in the 1985 Revolution, he doesn't time-travel well onscreen past about 1900. When Woody Allen went Napoleonic in Love and Death, this sort of temporal displacement was meant to be funny ... and it was. Here it's not meant to be, but it is nonetheless.

This appearance -- little more than a cameo -- destroys whatever claim on seriousness Besson and Jovovich have managed to establish. It's not clear that The Messenger would have worked -- to contemporary eyes, the literalness of cinema makes Joan's zealotry look more like insanity anyway -- but the ludicrous casting of Hoffman is just the fatal bit of kindling on this Joan's fire.

Opens Nov. 12.