Sony // 1999 // 158 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 24th, 2008
The not-particularly-true tale of God's psychopathic warrior.
"I am the drum on which God is beating out his messages. And right now he's beating so hard, it's bursting my ears!"
In the early 1400s, France was not a peaceful place. It was a time of war and turmoil, but a young girl named Jeanne (Jane Valentine) did not care about any of this. Jeanne always saw the positive side of life, and desired nothing more than to serve others and to follow the teachings of Christ. That was until the traumatic day when her family was brutally murdered. This event traumatized Jeanne, as it would any young girl. Jeanne no longer felt a spirit of joy, but a spirit of vengeance. She knew that God wanted her to pick up a holy sword and serve the great nation of France. She knew that she would be the one to lead the French people to victory.
When Jeanne reaches her late teens (and is played by Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil), she sends letters to the Dauphin (John Malkovich, Ripley's Game) requesting an army. She wants thousands of men that she can lead into battle to free the French from English oppression. Reluctantly and surprisingly, the Dauphin agrees to Jeanne's request. A teenage girl with a mission from God must now guide the French to victory on the battlefield. Is this young woman a holy messenger or just an insane psychopath with a lot of nerve?
You might have raised your eyebrows at that last sentence in the plot description. Why does Joan of Arc have to be either a holy messenger or an insane psychopath? Why can't she just be a strong, brave, intelligent woman who happens to have very firm religious beliefs? I suppose that she could, but most assuredly not in this movie. Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is the most feverishly over-the-top version of this story ever made and leaves no wiggle room for sanity. The film demands that you either accept Jeanne as the messenger of God that she believes she is, or that you conclude that she is just a raving lunatic.
This movie begins on a highly theatrical note and refuses to let up for a minute over the course of this 158-minute epic. When we first meet Jeanne, she is not just a happy child. She is absolutely the happiest child in the world. To reinforce this point, we are shown images of Jeanne giggling with glee as she runs through a field of yellow flowers...and then through a field of red flowers...and then through a field of lavender...and then through a field of wheat...and then through an enchanting little creek...and then...well, you get the idea. It's quite the happiness montage.
Then it's time for tragedy to strike. Besson will not have some ordinary tragedy. A child's parents dying? Pah! That's hardly new material. Not only does Besson kill Jeanne's parents, he forces young Jeanne to watch her older sister being raped and killed (not in that order). Jeanne's face turns stony and ominous. Fast forward to Jeanne as an older teen. Milla Jovovich plays Jeanne as something resembling a noisy, hyper, emotionally damaged cocaine addict who is always on the verge of tears. Jovovich shouts, screams, quivers, trembles, weeps, and moans her way through this performance. I admired it more than I actually liked it.
Besson keeps the energy level high while also dragging things out far too long. Each section of the film seems to go on forever, particularly the violent battle material in the midsection. We get roughly an hour of fighting. While this is quite well-staged, it's kind of preposterous from a historical standpoint (like most of this film), and just a bit numbing after a while. This is a movie with unchecked excesses, which is fun for a while, but ultimately not a very satisfactory viewing experience. The film is in desperate need of a little bit of restraint and some considerable editing. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is not quite bad enough to be called a disaster. Rather, it's just good enough to give the viewer an idea of how much better it could have been.
The transfer here is a disappointing and uneven one. While facial detail is often pretty sharp, flesh tones are off from time to time, and there is a considerable amount of grain. In addition, minor damage is evident from time to time, surprising considering the fact that the film is only about a decade old. Audio is okay, though I think that Eric Serra's bombastic original score could have been dialed down a bit. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no supplements of any kind included on the disc. The DVD release was light on supplements; this Blu-ray release would have been the perfect opportunity to add some new bonus features. Sadly, that did not happen.
There are four performances here that frequently elevate the film to a higher level. The first comes from John Malkovich, who replaces his trademark superiority with a sense of slightly childish whimsy. The Dauphin seems to be a man who is as comfortable with handing his army to an unproven teenager as he is permitting one of his nation's heroes to be burnt at the stake. His mother-in-law is played by Faye Dunaway (Chinatown), who has some splendid scenes with Malkovich. I was also struck by how good Timothy West (Beyond Borders) is as the church leader presiding over Jeanne's trial. His character initially appears to be a predictable stereotype, but West brings him curious complexity. The best performance comes from Dustin Hoffman as...well, what is he? The credit's claim he is Joan's conscience, but some scenes seem to indicate that he is the devil. Maybe the devil is her conscience? Though, sometimes he appears as Jesus Christ. That throws a kink into things. Anyway, whoever this guy is, Hoffman makes him the most compelling aspect of the film.
The Messenger is a silly, interesting mess. It's intriguing enough to be worth viewing, but by no means the definitive take on Joan of Arc that it should have (and could have) been. I know that some of you aren't too crazy about silent films, but if you want to see a great Joan of Arc movie, you should see Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. That one (along with Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc) qualifies as essential viewing; Besson's film is more of a bloated curiosity. This underwhelming Blu-ray release offers absolutely no incentive for fans of the movie to upgrade, and does not merit a recommendation.
Guilty. We're not going to burn anyone at the stake, though.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated