MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC, THE

R

-By Chris Grunden


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Arriving on the heels of an acclaimed CBS miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski, Luc Besson's epic treatment of the life and death of France's favorite heroine is destined to be relegated to the back pages of cinematic history. Loaded with flashy visuals and plenty of gory battles, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc tracks the classic story of the 15th-century French peasant girl who became a liberating hero to her country during the Hundred Years' War by leading an army against the English. The devoutly religious Joan was besieged with visions that she claimed were God's way of ordering her to save France from her aggressors and bring her back into His arms. As she explains to skeptics, 'I don't think. I leave that to God. I'm just the messenger.' Despite a dramatic opening success against the English at Orleans (a massively bloody contest which shows off Besson's command of action sequences), Joan was ultimately betrayed to her enemies and burned at the stake as a witch at age 19, in 1431. History has judged Joan of Arc more kindly: She was canonized a saint in 1920, an act which assured her iconic status.

The Joan of Arc story has produced no shortage of films (with Dreyer's silent version from 1928 at the top of every cinephile's list), but the role remains a great one for an actress to tackle. It's a shame that Besson didn't have a prophetic vision of his own before casting Jovovich (now his ex-wife), because the model-turned-actress is in way over her head here. She certainly looks smashing in armor, sitting atop a horse with her personal banner flying (until she cuts off almost all her golden hair in an effort to get her male comrades to take her more seriously), but once she opens her mouth, it's all over. Jovovich's raspy voice is sorely equipped to convey the role's requisite passion and it's hard to imagine anyone taking seriously her command 'Follow me!' into a life-or-death contest. In fact, this French production (filmed in English) doesn't use any of its principal cast members to good advantage, and many of the performances are borderline camp. As the Dauphin, later crowned Charles VII, John Malkovich vamps through his role in a manner which only made me think of how fine he is in Being John Malkovich, one of 1999's pleasures. And Faye Dunaway's performance as the Dauphin's mother-in-law is notable mainly due to the fact that her costuming pulls her face back in a most bizarre manner. Strangest of all is Dustin Hoffman, who shows up near the end of this long film as Joan's Conscience, posing doubts about the validity of her supposedly God-sanctioned campaign. Bearded and shrouded in black, Hoffman comes across like a combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The cast member that fares best is Jane Valentine, who, in the film's first half-hour, plays Joan in her early years. In her brief appearance, Valentine displays all the fiery passion that Jovovich ultimately lacks.

Though the film's drama peters out long before its long running time expires, my eye didn't tire of taking in Thierry Arbogast's sumptuous wide-screen camerawork, or the careful period details from production designer Hughes Tissandier and costumer Catherine Leterrier. And while Jovovich's faults are insurmountable, Besson's vigorous staging of the battle scenes, loaded with men having their limbs hacked off, getting felled by arrows and crushed by cannonballs, provides some consolation. My guess is Columbia has virtually no chance of finding an audience for this misfire, but I expect overseas returns might make up for an unwinnable U.S. engagement.

--Chris Grunden


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