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Weekly Alibi French in Action

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  There are many ways to interpret the character of Joan of Arc: holy martyr, innocent maiden, warrior woman icon. Now, exotic actress Milla Jovovich has added yet another facet to the legend of the peasant girl-turned-saint -- that of screeching space case.

To be sure, questions of schizophrenia and other brain disorders have cropped up in recent years regarding St. Joan and other historical figures prone to grandiose behavior and wicked cool hallucinations. Was Jeanne d'Arc on a mission from God, or just bug nuts? The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc seems to split right down the middle, giving audiences a heroine who is clearly whacked, but who could still be on a mission from God. Unfortunately, Jovovich isn't quite deft enough to give Joan the necessary madwoman/genius shadings. Whenever called upon to lead her troops into battle in the monumental liberation of France, Jovovich simply bugs out her eyes and screeches like an impatient school girl. It's hard to imagine this high-pitched loon actually inspiring an army -- even a French one.

The Messenger's subject matter is clearly near and dear to the heart of Frenchy helmer Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional, La Femme Nikita). Make no mistake -- Besson has whipped up an epic biopic that delivers the historical goods. Fabulous costumes, gorgeous Euro scenery and massive blood-soaked battles are all present and accounted for. The only thing Besson's Messenger lacks is a compelling title character.

It seems that Besson searched the world over to find the perfect actress to interpret one of the most influential female figures in all of history. He found his perfect Joan in model/actress/singer Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Return to the Blue Lagoon). Conveniently enough, he was married to her.

There's a certain amount of hubris that goes into casting your wife as a saint. Sure, most men have that image of their wives all the time. But are they all really worthy of sainthood? Doubtful.

It's not that Jovovich is a bad actress. She was perfectly acceptable as the sexy space alien in Fifth Element. But she's simply out of her league in The Messenger. This is Joan of Arc we're talking about -- a woman who, in 1429, led the entire French army to victory over the invading English! It's a daunting role for any actress, and Jovovich just doesn't have the presence to pull it off in its entirety. The film's script (by Besson and Name of the Rose scripter Andrew Birkin) doesn't help matters much. The narrative is rather simple, chunking Joan's life into three square bits. First up, we have Joan's childhood -- filled with swishy mystical "visions" of swirling clouds and fields of flowers. Secondly, we have Joan's life as a teenage Wonder Woman -- convincing the Dauphin of France (a beautifully clueless John Malkovich) to front her an army for laying siege to the city of Orleans. Finally, we have Joan's last days -- the war is ended, the diplomats have stepped in, and now the politicians are itching to sweep hot-headed Joan under the rug. A more complex, less linear structure to the narrative might have put less of a burden on poor Jovovich.

Still, despite a slight personality power drain where there should be an acting supernova, The Messenger has a great many things pulling for it. Besson has always had an impeccable visual eye, and The Messenger looks like a million dollars. Several million, actually. When concentrating on the gory, head-lopping battle scenes, Besson is on solid ground. He's surrounded Joan with some colorful warrior types and choreographed some dazzling sword-clanging scenarios. Few viewers will find themselves nodding off during what could have been a dry French history lesson.

Once Joan has reclaimed the town of Orleans from the British and seen the Dauphin crowned King Charles VII, The Messenger switches gears, though, and becomes a thriller of behind-the-scenes religious/political machinations. Certainly, everyone knows where this will end up -- with Joan burned at the stake by age 19. But the trial and imprisonment of Joan comes as a bit of a let down following all the audience-arousing warmongering of earlier scenes.

It's not until the film's final moments that the script really kicks into gear, delivering its most potent twist. While she is imprisoned, Joan finds herself visited by an unknown figure (mysteriously thesped by Dustin Hoffman). Who is this creepy fellow who torments Joan by questioning her deepest motivations? Is he God? The Devil? Or something else entirely? Hoffman's extended Socratic dialogue with Joan reveals some of The Messenger's meatier concepts.

While she isn't the most adept at pulling off the forceful Women Who Run With the Wolves stuff, Jovovich does gangbusters as the confused, conflicted and unsure teenager. By film's end, we actually see Joan's doubt. Has she been driven by God this entire time, or just her own inner demons? Is she a worthy saint, or just a bloodlusting angel of vengeance? Had the script spent more time with this intriguing mental dialogue (or, at the very least, interspersed Joan's trial and imprisonment throughout the film), The Messenger might have been a more interesting work of art.

Besson has certainly crafted a rousing, '90s-style vision for Joan of Arc. If only he'd spent less time canonizing his sweetheart, and more time giving us a Joan of Arc for all the ages.

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