I’m a huge sucker for medieval stories, and when it comes to the movies, France’s magnificent history often gets overlooked. That is a darn shame, since the French probably did more to advance the cause of knightly chivalry than most people outside of France realize. But all that seemed to change in 1999, when Luc Besson and his then-wife Milla Jovovich followed up their success from the Fifth Element to tackle one France’s great heroes and martyrs: Joan of Arc. At last, we would get the great French medieval epic we deserved. Alas, what resulted was a mess of a movie, to be honest, with some parts working beautifully and others head-scratchingly ineffective. Ultimately, most of the movie’s problems rest on a drama behind the scenes, wherein Kathryn Bigelow originally was set to produce, Besson set to direct, but Besson wanted to cast Jovovich as the lead, in an act of marital nepotism. Bigelow said no way, Besson bailed and did the whole thing himself, never quite realizing that Milla is good at many things. Pretending to be Joan of Arc was never going to be one of them.
The story starts off in the 15th century with a fictionalized backstory for young Joan, who contends with religious visions from an early age, and undergoes the trauma of watching her older sister endure brutal rape and murder at the hands of invading English soldiers. The movie sets the stage of France in a state of national crisis the likes of which would not be seen again until WWII. The English control much of the land, while the Burgundians collaborate. Charles VII, the soon-to-be-crowned King of France is fighting a losing battle to preserve what little kingdom he will have left. So when a disheveled farm girl comes to his court asking for command of an army because God commanded her to lead France to victory, he actually gives it to her. Thus does young Joan of Arc, with no training, suit up and lead an incredulous force of hardened French knights to liberate the countryside. And yet, against impossible odds Joan succeeds, creating not just military victory, but a genuine sense of hope among her people that they can, indeed, retake what is theirs. And then it goes sideways. Joan’s rising power and popularity raise suspicions among those threatened by her, so they sell her out to the English, who promptly try her for heresy. Even though she strives to confess her crimes, they figure out a way to burn her at the stake anyway, because medieval invaders are all about making examples out of people.
As mentioned before, the main failure of this movie is Milla Jovovich never pulls off a convincing Joan of Arc. But there are plenty of bright spots here that make this movie worth considering. Luc Besson for his various flaws, is a hell of an action filmmaker, and the various battle scenes at the heart of the movie are simply terrific. Almost too much so; we begin to find ourselves more invested in the soldiers fighting for Joan than for Joan herself, since every time the swords are drawn, we often don’t see Joan in the thick of things. Everybody else is putting English invaders under the ground, why not Joan?
At first, this comes off like an oversight or a refusal to engage in a point of contentious history. Or maybe it was misplaced reverence for a religious martyr as well as a national military hero. But in the movie’s final act, when Joan is in prison and enduring the unjust trial that seals her fate, we finally get a fuller picture of her (insofar as the movie is concerned) in what delivers to us the movie’s moment of truth.
While sitting in her cell, Joan is visited by a mysterious cloaked figure simply named the Confessor (played by Dustin Hoffman in one of this movie’s many baffling casting decisions) who engages Joan in a kind of Socratic interrogation. Again and again, he asks her to verify her visions to him. Again and again, he challenges the details of the narrative by which she has lived her life. And as he does, we see Joan’s own confidence in her personal history crack. We never see her fighting because she never saw herself fighting, even though she surely must have partaken in bloodshed. And lots of it, too—she just can’t admit it to herself. So while we are treated to rousing images of French knights fighting their invaders, Joan is simply waving a banner and cheering people on. She did more. A lot more.
The Confessor is not some inquisitor trying to catch Joan in a lie; he’s a manifestation of her subconscious, illustrating to a modern crowd what a medieval one could never understand: Joan probably wasn’t the recipient of divine visions. She was more likely suffering from mental illness that provided politically expedient at the time. That Joan can’t understand what’s happening to her and around her becomes the real tragedy of this story, not that she got sold out by the very people she fought so hard to save. Ultimately, Joan’s confession to herself that maybe everything is not as she imagined it is a moment of truth not just for the audience but for Joan herself. In the moments before her fiery doom, she is meant to seek absolution from her god, but we see that if she wanted that, she already had it. What she really needed was to understand herself, and we are led to believe that before she dies, she has that moment of clarity denied to her for so very long. None of this really jives with history, of course, but that’s not the point. Imagining an ancient hero for modern audiences is. And in that, The Messenger works well enough.