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What did I know about Joan of Arc before seeing this film. I knew she lived at least 400 years ago, that she was French, that she fought as a soldier in the French army and led them to some highly memorable victories. I didn't know for sure, but might have guessed that England was France's enemy at the time. I also knew that J of A was burned at the stake at the end of her career. That's about it, really.
Now I know a lot about Joan of Arc, like how she originally bent the dauphin's ear because of a prophecy that said that a virgin girl from a small town in France (where Joan was from) would cause his coronation. I know now that it was in the 1400's and much of France was occupied by England, including Paris. From an adolescence of Dungeons & Dragons, I was well familiar with the iron weapons used in these battles, the swords, battleaxes, morning-stars (those spiked balls on the ends of chains that cause 2d8+strength bonus of damage, if I'm not mistaken).
In fact, I think I know more about Joan of Arc (played by Milla Jovovich) than is really knowable from historical data alone. The Messenger goes into her intense psyche to fill in the causes of her ascent to (and descent into) martyrdom. It all started, the film postulates, when Joan was a joyous young girl and her town was sacked by English marauders. Her sister was raped and killed while Joan watched from a hiding place. She was traumatized and the religious fervor that the young Joan had been feeling turned into a burning piety to make angry Yahweh proud. Growing up, she was subject to "visions" and "voices," which the film theorizes were subconscious manifestations of her great grief. Director Luc Besson shows us her divine visions with surreal camera tricks, capturing dream-state better than many. Luc later puts Dustin Hoffman in as a psychosomatic priest/confessor to get Milla through the hubris of her trial by the Catholic Church.
Joan is an intense adult, believing herself divinely visited. She brims with anger, piety, and action. The writers do a good job of keeping their script free of judgement. Whereas Oliver Stone's biographies tend to judges characters like Jim Morrison to be paradoxically cool and a jerky at the same time, Beeson manages to portray Joan's intensity with tenderness. He reveals her humanity and theorizes on her insanity without judgement. We are to understand that she is a product of violence, flowering into violence, and dead to a painful martyrdom.
The story really is quite fascinating, historically, and this film does a good job of keeping it moving. I like the action; and the costumes and settings are beautiful re-creations of the world of old. With all this in mind, I would recommend this film as a good night's entertainment, though maybe a bit on the PBS side, but not as intense or heavy as you might expect based on trailers. I was also surprised at the high level of gore in this movie. You see heads and limbs lopped off, spurting blood, crushed bodies, and Joan soaked from a sanguine shower.
Mrs. Worsted, usually put off by violence in film, didn't find this as hard to take, in spite of it's graphic nature. To her, I think, it is death by guns and bombs that are more disturbing. Nowadays, humans can kill without confronting face-to-face the ramifications of their actions or the deadly force we wield. Back then, when you went to war, you lined up on a field, faced your opponent, saw them for people. When you hacked and chopped, you were being hacked and chopped at. And if you were victorious, a dead body would be lying before you, able to curse you or confess to you before its last breath escaped. Was wasn't humane, but it was human.
Having taken a walled city back from the English, Joan comes out of her berzerker rage to scattered cries of victory. She looks around to see both sides decimated and all victors drenched in blood. Her trauma and confusion deepen.
Later, she loses the support of the king. Having arrived at the throne, he no longer feels the need to have a holy crusader on his side. And so the slow decent begins....
Jovovich's acting is good, but there are moments I found it to be a little too actorly. The script gives Jovovich a large challenge to embody a divine and violent madness without losing grace, and for the most part, she manages it, but when the actress begins to get overwhelmed, she seems to overact to compensate. Her jowl-shakes and wide-eyed stares seem superficial to me. Feel free to disagree, but I think Tilda Swinton could have done it better, though perhaps she's not particularly into violent roles.
In general, a good and engaging flick.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.