Luc Besson's film 'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc'

I suppose I should know better than to present a historian's view of a film of this sort, but such is what I do.
While the scriptwriter, Andrew Birkin, has said that he made sure the end result was far more historical than what director Luc Besson and distributor Sony had originally planned (don't ask...), and Birkin seems to have had good motives, the end result nevertheless bears little resemblance to the time period, people, or events in question. Nor, good motives aside, is it respectful of the heroine: both the director and scriptwriter have confirmed that the film's intent was to show, in essence, that Joan allegedly betrayed her religion by leading an army (hence the lurid "Thou Shalt Not Kill" message, the scene with a bloodied Jesus figure who asks her why she's hurting Him, the business with her "conscience" (played by Dustin Hoffman) at the end, and so forth). Luc Besson had the following to say about the film's take on the subject: "If she wanted to be a good Christian, a good person... even if her motivation was good, to have her country free, it was wrong to participate in the massacres. 'Thou shalt not kill' - that's a commandment." Of course, she didn't take part in any "massacres", and in fact tried to stop her troops from killing prisoners and so forth; and if Besson is trying to say that Joan's decision to carry a banner at the head of an army violates the Ten Commandments, he's ignoring the many Divinely-sanctioned wars mentioned in the Bible itself as well as the fact that the specific commandment he cites is probably more properly translated "Thou shall not murder", a distinction neither he nor the scriptwriter seem willing to make. This is modern "Woodstock Christianity" being translated, ironically enough, into a war film about a medieval military saint who lived in an era in which the Church itself had many orders of "warrior clergy". But, having determined that all warfare is condemned by the Bible, the film's creators decided, according to the scriptwriter, that Joan must have been motivated by revenge rather than religion, for which they inserted an entirely fictitious rape and murder scene near the beginning in order to give her a reason for seeking vengeance against the English - in stark contradiction to the evidence in the original documents, in which her compassion for English soldiers is repeatedly described by the eyewitnesses. Those who knew her consistently said that she wept when English troops were killed, tried to save even the more vile enemy commanders such as Sir William Glasdale, and comforted dying English soldiers. The evidence also contradicts the film's version of Joan as a twitchy, hysterical neurotic, which has led many viewers to come away from the film with the notion that she was insane - despite the fact that, as many scholars have pointed out, we can prove that she certainly did not suffer from schizophrenia or other form of mental illness. In fact the eyewitnesses said repeatedly that, far from being the out-of-control figure portrayed in the film, she, quote, "speaks little, [and] demonstrates remarkable prudence in her speech"; she was able to hold her own against trained theologians and devise "new stratagems that two or three of the most experienced commanders could not have done", etc. The film's version, on the other hand, was aptly described by one viewer as "a Valley Girl on methamphetamines".

Along similar lines, Besson has said that he made the character to look as androgynous as possible, thereby dredging up another bit of slander leveled against her by her enemies but contradicted by the eyewitness accounts. Based on Besson's comments in "Le Monde" and elsewhere, he was apparently attracted to doing a film about Joan of Arc because he thought she was androgynous like the character played by his (then) lover Milla Jovovich in "The Fifth Element", and so he found them both "sexy". One reviewer, Kathryn Norberg, dryly commented that this seems a pretty thin premise upon which to make a movie about Saint Joan. It could be added that the real St. Joan did not take kindly to people viewing her as a sex object (androgynous or otherwise), based on her response to those few who decided to make lewd comments about her.
The physical appearance of the character is a bit surreal. It's been pointed out that the character looks a lot like Leonardo diCapprio (and, strangely enough, bears no resemblance to Milla Jovovich as she normally looks). One of the early promo shots for the movie featured a mannequin-like Joan with thick, bruised-looking lips and stringy hair hanging dreadlock-style over her face, looking like a strange cross between a fashion magazine pinup and "Xena, Warrior Princess". According to one article, Besson had told Jovovich to prepare for the role by going to nightclubs with her hair cut in an ugly fashion (obviously, the worst trauma that the real Joan had to suffer was being seen publicly on a "bad hair day", so Jovovich had to develop the spine to handle such tragedies). And yes, the above mentality probably explains a few things about the way this movie turned out.

The film is no more respectful of history than it is of Joan herself. Despite claims by the distributor that the movie was based upon careful research, very little of it is true to the period. The dialogue is pure late-20th century. The battlefield sequences have little in common with 15th century battles, and neither do the weapons. Some viewers were impressed by the bloody mess created as giant spinning propellers lop off the heads of any soldier unfortunate enough to get in the way (ah yes, it was those giant propellers which made the late-medieval battlefield the brutal arena that it was); some even made absurd comparisons to Spielberg's excellent "Saving Private Ryan". But whereas the latter movie featured reasonably authentic tactics and weapons, and the characteristic wounds produced by those weapons, Besson's film is merely gory for the sake of being gory. Whereas Spielberg's use of first-person camera footage (with drops of blood and dirt spattered on the lens) was meant to suggest the military cameramen who did in fact accompany the troops onto the beach that day, Besson's similar tactic of showing blood spattering on the camera lens is merely a hopelessly anachronistic gimmick - is the audience being asked to believe that cameramen accompanied 15th century armies? Apparently, Besson decided to borrow a technique he thought would be seen as "chic", without taking any account of the change in time period from World War II to the Hundred Years War. And whereas Spielberg's film is a sympathetic and sensitive attempt to portray the nightmare that the actual troops had to endure and to honor their sacrifice, Besson's fantasy portrayal of battle, and his stated opposition to (if not outright contempt for) those who fight wars, results merely in a trendy bloodfest that cheapens the subject rather than educating the public or honoring the fallen.
Certainly, the fallen are not being treated with any great sympathy here. The characters - especially Joan - seem to have been little more than puppets for the director to play with and manipulate according to his desires (evidently including sexual desires, in the case of the lead character); the film's visual effects seem designed to play well at the box office, but without achieving the sort of realism that might at least give people a small sense of the horror of real combat: if you're going to show a guy getting his head knocked off by a big propeller, you should at least integrate the digital effects seamlessly with the video footage. Spielberg's film was graphic in a way that caused people to walk out of theaters holding their stomachs, and to question whether they themselves would be able to stand real combat; Besson's campier form of bloodshed tended to delight the adolescent set in much the same way as the hokey gore featured in video games. Spattering blood is fun so long as it isn't realistic enough to make you lose your lunch.

The relatively few critics who praised the film - and they were remarkably few compared to other historical films, which critics generally applaud no matter how inaccurate they are - even these fellows mostly praised only the "hip" filmmaking prowess of the director himself, which is perhaps what the director was after. It's been pointed out that almost everything in the film ultimately comes back to what Besson wants or likes, seemingly serving the purpose of self-glamorization, ego, ambition, and personal taste rather than serving to honor the heroine who did so much for the director's homeland. It's hardly surprising that so many Frenchmen despised the film: one wrote to me saying that most of his fellow countrymen were outraged by what had been done to the woman whom many of the French still affectionately call their "Petite Pucelle".

While we've all become resigned to silly Hollywood films that distort history, the shameful treatment of La Pucelle in this one marks a low point for the genre. Film critic Charles Taylor has said that "The Messenger" was the only movie he has ever called "vulgar", which is perhaps as good a way of summing it up as any. I will therefore include his full quote on this subject as a final word:

"Besson is very shrewdly linking his box-office clout to the adoration of France's national heroine. Which would be fine if his approach weren't entirely self-serving. 'The Messenger' is a truly vulgar movie (and I've never described any film with that word), not just because Besson has taken on Joan's story with no feelings of reverence or awe or even much sympathy for her, but because her story is reduced to an excuse for him to parade himself as Luc Besson, Epic Filmmaker."
Amen.

Back to the Archive, main page.


Copyright 2002, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.