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by: James Berardinelli

Not since the 1920s (in the years following her canonization) has there been this much interest in Joan of Arc. In 1999, not one, but two, major entertainment events have been built around this icon. The first, a made-for-TV miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski, garnered impressive ratings during the May sweeps. The second, Luc Besson's epic motion picture, has been released into theaters during the heart of the Oscar season. However, in the midst of such a crowded and impressive field of major films, The Messenger is unlikely to find much favor with Academy members, nor is its box-office take expected to astound the officials at Columbia Pictures.

Over the years, the story of Saint Joan has inspired many motion pictures. Three of them are especially well-known, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Carl Th. Dreyer's classic silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in 1928, was thought forever lost until a pristine copy was discovered in a Norwegian asylum in 1981. Roberto Rossellini's 1954 version of the story made the laughably bad choice of casting 39-year old Ingrid Bergman as a girl half her age. Otto Preminger's 1957 Saint Joan represented the disastrous debut of Jean Seberg, who was selected after an exhaustive search uncovered her (revisionist critics have since softened their view of this picture). Besson's latest version is the most lavish and expensive telling of the story, but, because of several key problems, it will not be regarded as the definitive cinematic biography.

Besson's approach is considerably different than that of his many predecessors. Typically, filmmakers have taken Jeanne/Joan's divine inspiration as a given - it is the foundation upon which a melodrama of greed, corruption, and unshakable faith is built. Besson, however, questions the nature of Jeanne's revelations and the voices that impart them to her. While the possibility is left open that God has spoken to the peasant girl, Besson allows (and perhaps encourages) an alternative interpretation - that Jeanne's religious fervor is the result of paranoid schizophrenia. Are her actions prompted by faith or insanity? This approach links the film thematically with Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (with a hint of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ thrown in for good measure). Unfortunately, The Messenger does not have Emily Watson; it has Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element).

To be fair, the model-turned-actress (who was married to director Besson at the time of filming, although they have since split up) is close to the right age to play the part, and she willingly allows herself to be shown in a very unflattering light (covered in dirt with a nearly shaven skull). There are also isolated scenes in which she is effective. Unfortunately, those are more the exceptions than the rule. Predominantly, the role defeats Jovovich. Unable to capture the complexity of Jeanne, she resorts to going over the top, reducing the character to little more than a comic book-type heroine with minimal depth and breadth. The script doesn't help - it touches on Jeanne's occasional concerns about the genuineness of her revelations and her horror at the realities of war, but fails to develop those elements in a way that makes either issue gripping.

As is often true of French-made films (as opposed to their Hollywood counterparts), The Messenger's adherence to history is good (although, as with all narrative features, a certain amount of dramatic license has been taken). Jeanne was born in 1412 in Domrémy, France, when much of her country was occupied by the English army (this was during the so-called "Hundred Years War"). The movie first introduces her in 1420, when an English raiding party attacks Jeanne's village and kills her sister. Already hearing voices that she believes to be of divine inspiration, she is sent off to live with an aunt and unc


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