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review added: 3/28/00



The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
International Version - 1999 (2000) - Leeloo/Gaumont (Columbia TriStar)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc Film Rating: D+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B-

Specs and Features
159 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:23:02, at the start of chapter 15), Amaray keep case packaging, featurette HBO First Look: The Messenger - The Search for the Real Joan of Arc, isolated score, teaser and theatrical trailer, trailers for Orlando, Run Lola Run and The Professional, talent files, animated film-themed menus with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned


"Witch, Leader, Lunatic, Warrior, Saint..."

These are the words that the promotional campaign for The Messenger uses to describe Joan of Arc, and tease us into the theater. But which of them is she? Well... after watching this film, I couldn't tell you. And neither, I think, can director Luc Besson or Milla Jovovich.

It would be difficult to find a more passionate and compelling story from history than that of Joan D'Arc. The rest of this paragraph could be considered a spoiler (although if you know anything about Joan, you probably know how her story ends), so if you're completely in the dark and wish to stay that way, you might want to skip on. It's no secret that Joan was a simple peasant girl in 15th Century France, a country without a monarch and under siege by armies from England. Joan believed she saw visions from God, directing her to save France from its enemies, and ensure that the Dauphin - the rightful heir - be crowned king. This she did. But despite her loyalty to king and country, her fate is ultimately sealed by the very people she sought to help. See... I told you it was compelling.

But the Joan D'Arc in The Messenger is anything but compelling. Is she really seeing visions from God, or is she just schizophrenic? Is it God she's seeing, or the Devil? We're never given a clue by this film, which can't seem to make up its mind. We only see Joan's early visions (which we're supposed to believe motivate everything she does) in nightmare-like flashbacks, which feature exploding stained glass windows and bug-eyed Christ look-alikes. In fact, even in Joan's darkest hour, does she see God? No. What we get is a darkly-robed and ominous Dustin Hoffman, who proceeds to undermine her confidence in her actions. Even the name of his character (he's billed as The Conscience) implies that she's simply crazy and that her divine visions are nothing more than creations of her troubled mind. That's all fine and good - it could be an interesting approach to this character. Besson seems to want us (as the audience) to make up our own minds about who Joan was. The problem is, this Joan is almost completely unsympathetic. So about halfway through the film, you stop caring.

A frenetic, vacant and uncomplicated performance by Milla Jovovich doesn't help matters. Jovovich is terrific at portraying wide-eyed, tearful amazement. And that works wonders - to a point. But her portrayal of Joan is erratic and confused - sometimes we see her confident and leading the charge into battle, and in other moments, she's screaming at her soldiers irrationally with no idea what to do next. At one point a soldier asks what Joan thinks of the battle plan, and she replies, "I don't think - I leave that to God." Clearly. But since we're not sure she's really seeing God, she ends up just looking crazy.

A poorly written screenplay also hamstrings The Messenger. Too often, important events in the story of Joan take place off screen, while instead we're treated to banal dialogue, unnecessary exposition and such wondrous moments as the royal "checking of Joan's virginity" and one of the most brutal and unnecessary rape sequences I've seen on film in a long while. The battle sequences, while great looking, are undermined by inappropriate moments of goofy humor, and buffoonish performances by some of the supporting cast, so the tension is never allowed to build to a satisfying conclusion. There's a great moment where the English believe Joan to be dead (felled in a previous battle by an archer) and are taunting the weary French soldiers about her. Joan strides out onto the misty battlefield alone, banner held high and seemingly having risen from the dead, and delivers a speech that strikes the fear of God in her enemies. Cool right? Well, then we're made to watch several minutes of Joan waking her soldiers up to fight the battle - they were sleeping and completely missed Joan's stirring speech. "Wake up my fine soldiers! To arms, wake up!"

All is not lost however. The stunning visual canvas created by Besson (along with cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and a first-rate production design team) is what saves The Messenger from total disaster. This film is a feast for the eyes. Many of the locations used in the film are the real places visited by Joan in the 15th Century. Besson is no slouch when it comes to crafting the look of his films, and this one is a wonder.

This DVD version of the film is good but not great. The anamorphic widescreen video is solid, but isn't quite as crisp and clear as other transfers we've seen from Columbia TriStar. Despite the use of edge-enhancement, some parts of the picture are occasionally too soft looking, and the color saturation is a bit uneven - all likely print issues. Still, the contrast is excellent and there are good, deep blacks with only minor artifacting visible on occasion. Better than most but not as good as some - that's how I'd describe the video. The audio falls into about the same category. The dialogue is generally clear and well mixed, with some good rear channel effects and solid bass. This isn't the most ambient and natural sound field, but it works for the film.

Extras here include a 24-minute HBO: First Look documentary, which focuses more on the historical research into Joan of Arc than the actual filmmaking. Eric Serra's score is also available on an isolated audio track, but it's also uneven. At times it's stirring, but at other times it seems unmotivated (you could lift this track right out of the film and replace it with almost anything). Also included are talent files and theatrical trailers for this film and three others. One thing I'd like to point out here, is the truly fantastic teaser trailer for The Messenger, which is included on this disc. It grabs you with striking imagery and yet doesn't give away the whole film in the process. I which more trailers were like this one.

Sadly, beautiful cinematography can't make up for a badly written script. I can't completely suggest that you pass on The Messenger, but I'd definitely suggest that you keep your expectations low. I really wanted to enjoy this film more than I did. Surprisingly, it's almost entirely lacking in the one thing that the story of Joan of Arc should have in spades - heart. My recommendation is to check out Artisan's Joan of Arc instead. It's a far more rewarding experience.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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