Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 3/28/00
The Messenger: The
Story of Joan of Arc
Version - 1999 (2000) - Leeloo/Gaumont (Columbia TriStar)
review by Bill Hunt,
editor of The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
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
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
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
of Arc instead. It's a far more rewarding experience.