The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
Women and Power
Politics and Warfare
Released November 2, 1999, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,directed by Luc Besson, is a controversial adaptation of Joan of Arc’s life that differs in many respects with some the classical films of the same Joan genre, such as Dreyer’s 1928 adaptation, The Passion of Joan of Arc. When the film was announced in 1999, two years after Besson directed The Fifth Element, one of the most groundbreaking sci-fi movies of the late 1990s, there were high expectations for Besson and hopes that this film would solidify his reputation as a director. Furthermore, Milla Jovovich, the star of The Fifth Element, was to play the titular role of Joan of Arc, and the rest of the stellar cast including John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, and Dustin Hoffman. In this historical action epic, Besson’s film explores the life of Joan of Arc from roughly 1420 to her execution in 1431, depicting Joan serving France heroically and her emotional journey through war and her faith. When the movie was released, however, it received poor reviews from critics and audiences alike and underperformed at the box office, yielding just under $67,000,000 worldwide from an original budget of $60,000,000. The film was nominated for a few awards, including a mock award for Worst Actress, but only won the César Award for Best Costume Design and Best Sound.
The opening crawl of The Messenger sets the scene by providing some historical context, telling the audience that it is 1420 and the Treaty of Troyes has made the French situation more dire during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie follows almost the entirety of Joan’s life, from childhood through her execution, and includes some fabrications for dramatic effect, such as Joan being witness to her older sister’s murder and rape at the hands of English soldiers. It depicts what is now the popular legend of how she met the Dauphin Charles at his court in Chinon, but also over emphasizes her military career, showing her as a warrior rather than a saint, and her trial is rushed through in the third act. Although the action scenes and plot were rather entertaining, Besson’s directorial vision and objectives do veer away from the traditional historical narrative of Joan of Arc’s life. There are some very valuable historical insights in this film, drawn from various sources, but in regard to the scope of the film, Besson might have taken on more than he could handle.
In making this film, Besson and those involved in production seemed to have researched Joan’s trial very thoroughly, as many of the lines in the movie were taken directly from the transcripts, though Besson does not dedicate much screen time to the trial. Furthermore, the unnecessary rape of Joan’s older sister in the beginning, something that never happened historically, reduces Joan’s agency by making it seem as if her time as a military commander, something that was emphasized in the movie, was motivated by a personal vendetta against the English, which takes away from her divine inspiration. Furthermore, the scene in which Joan is imprisoned and she is forced, rather than her choosing, to wear men’s clothing after abjuring, also reduces her agency, as her being forced to wear men’s clothes indicates that she did not truly choose to become a martyr. These key differences are what distinguish this Joan of Arc film from others, which tend to emphasize Joan’s trial and conscious decisions to accept martyrdom and fulfill her duty to God. In the rest of the film, Besson integrates bits and pieces of the legend of Joan of Arc, such as her injuries and how she finds the Dauphin in Chinon, but ultimately diminishes her character and historical importance by condemning her “heresy” with the introduction of the Conscience character, played by Dustin Hoffman. All in all, it was a very enjoyable film, but unlike others does not pay the proper homage to Joan’s incredible historical and religious significance. The Messenger wants the audience to decide whether she was bipolar or divinely inspired.
Columbia Pictures (USA)
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)