I have to make a confession, the prospect of a blu-ray re-issue of Luc Besson’s reviled epic about Joan of Arc didn’t fill me with enthusiasm; I remembered this historical drama as being hard going back in 1999, but was prepared to give it another shot, hoping that either the film or my tastes might have matured over the years. Re-teaming the French director with his Fifth Element breakout star Milla Jovovich, The Messenger didn’t find many takers on release; taking too many liberties for historians, too dry for mainstream audiences, and with some international casting coups that didn’t fit the profile of a blockbuster circa 1999. Either the world has changed, or maybe it’s me, because The Messenger exceeds its mixed reputation on the evidence of this blu-ray revival.
Besson has brought a pulpy, comic book aesthetic to hits like Leon: The Professional and Nikita; he certainly wasn’t afraid to put a woman centre-stage. Casting the not-very-French Jovovich might be considered to be his first mistake in antagonising the cognoscenti in his French homeland, but she’s pretty fabulous in this role. Although she doesn’t enter until a good half-hour in, Joan of Arc is presented in a defiantly modern way, guided by voices, on a mission from God, but wrought with self-doubt as her mission becomes more bloody and unpalatable. Jovovich’s steely super-model looks work well for the virgin warrior, and she manages to convey Joan’s loss-of-direction admirably; she’s the right centre for a big international co-production like this.
The Messenger takes some big liberties; there’s no historical basis for having Joan witness the murder of her sister other than to impose a revenge motive, but that’s no bad thing when dealing with a remote character who imagines herself dealing directly with God. ‘I’m not here to do tricks,’ she tells the court of King Charles VII (John Malkovich, suitably vain), later announcing ‘I’d rather die than put my faith in magic.’ It’s notable that the King, and his manipulative mother-in-law Yolande (Faye Dunaway) both use falsehood in the guise of religious faith to muddy the waters, but Joan’s sainthood is immediately apparent when she sees through his trickery on their first meeting. Besson then risks alienating the pious by making the siege of Orleans a real rough-and tumble affair, with exploding heads, lots of f-bombs, and tonnes of fiendish gadgets used by the French and English alike. It’s a heady, gory mess, with lots of ‘you-are-there’ POV and all designed to get the audience as riled up as Joan herself.
But it’s the final section, with Joan in goal, on trial, awaiting execution and tormented by guilt and under the inquisition of The Conscience (Dustin Hoffman) which demonstrates a surprising maturity. Early scenes of the girlish Joan skipping through meadows before tragedy strikes recall the stark visions of Carl Dreyer or Jacques Rivette, and Besson brings a surprising depth to her theological awakening, with intense close-ups and some thoughtful dialogue, co-written by Andrew Birkin.
So I’m happy to do a full 180 turn on The Messenger. What seemed pompous and bloated in 1999 seems remarkably on-message in 2020, and this is a thoughtful, entertaining blockbuster that didn’t bust many blocks at the time. But with many holy wars in the news right now, it’s educational to see a film that offers a strong, female character with deep religious convictions, and doesn’t mock or water them down. This might not be history as we know it, but as a spiritual revision of the Joan of Arc story, it’s a grand, intelligent picture with a stellar cast to relish, particularly the much maligned Jovovich.
OUT ON BLU-RAY ™ , DIGITAL DOWNLOAD
& DVD IN THE UK FROM 24TH AUGUST 2020
Thanks to Organic Publicity for blu-ray access to this film.