‘The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc’ (1999) dir. Luc Besson
I’m a big cheerleader for this film. I think this is a remarkable achievement. I find Besson’s direction and intentions pure and Jovovich is incredible in the title role. The post modern way in which screenwriter Andrew Birkin and Luc Besson tackle the story gives the film a real timeless quality and a sharp contemporary message. And the cinematography by Thierry Arbogast? Get out of town! Absolutely gorgeous!
Now, there are a couple of awkward moments in the film. Things that seem out of place for one reason or another. They are small and inconsequential save for one that I feel should be addressed. I do not believe this film does itself any favors by treating the murder/rape of Joan’s sister as a black comedy sketch. I think this damages the film at the very start and it takes a minute to recover from it. It is also entirely made up. Joan Of Arc did not have a sister brutally raped and murdered by the English. I’m sure Besson had his reasons but…
The Church is presented as an unwieldy political monster here – draconian and far reaching as well as hypocritical and rigid in its discipline. Its intentions anything but noble. The French Government learns of a peasant girl gaining notoriety for her religious visions and decides to use her in a shrewd attempt to reignite a flagging nationalism. Joan was a natural when it came to myth making and the French monarch saw in her a great opportunity. While Joan Of Arc’s devotion to the cause was intense and blinding, the character she created for herself was one to be manipulated by far more calculating minds. To the people, the Maid of Orleans was a symbol of many things – hope, a resurgent France, proof of God’s existence…but to the French Government and the Church – she was a tool. And a tool they used wisely.
The cast that appears in this film is glorious. Jovovich is assisted on all sides by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Cassel and John Malkovich and they all give incredible performances.
At the end, she burns. We know Joan doesn’t make it out alive. There’s a mock trial and political shenanigans. But Joan’s victory in this film isn’t the military campaigns, her legend building or ability to inspire religious simpletons. In a clever, revisionist move the filmmakers paint Joan Of Arc’s greatest triumph as her ability to finally forgive herself. She finally comes to understand that the voice she’s been answering to is not God’s but her own. She does not need God’s forgiveness for her sins. She simply needs her own forgiveness to find peace.
Let’s face it. People look themselves in the mirror and tell themselves vital lies every day to keep them going. And some of these lies are larger than others. Joan’s vital lie was her unwavering belief that everything that occurred to her had a religious explanation and thus justified her extreme behavior. This prevented her from seeing the larger picture and it is that narrative that ultimately brought her down. She failed to understand her role in a world of boundaries, governments and alliances.
The filmmakers ask us to accept that Joan Of Arc is neither saint, opportunist, lunatic, do-gooder, or glory seeker but instead a highly passionate and confused teenager made up of all these things that happened to come together at the right time and place to create an enduring piece of history. In her final hours she finds absolution from within, freeing herself at last. She does not burn as the ambitious and over zealous Joan Of Arc. She burns as the simple peasant girl from Orleans who wanted to confess and having finally done so, could embrace her fate.