The French Witch Project
Films like The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc are the most difficult for me to write about. Really awful movies are a blast to rip apart. Really fabulous movies I sometimes feel as if I could write books about. But it’s those films that just sorta sit there up on the screen, never quite floundering but never taking off, that are the biggest challenge. It always seems as if there isn’t much to say about them.
The Messenger isn’t really bad, but, alas, it isn’t really good either. It desperately wants to be a French Braveheart, but director Luc Besson is no Mel Gibson. And neither is star Milla Jovovich.
They do try. I guess. Besson treats us to lots of gruesome battles with crunching bones and heads flying off torsos and nasty medieval weapons (like something called a “porcupine” and of course boiling oil). And Jovovich (The Fifth Element, also directed by Besson) gives us a fearless, reckless, wild-eyed Joan who’s more the schizophrenic the French national heroine probably actually was than the messenger of God the Catholic Church would like to believe she was. But The Messenger never got me riled up… me, who wanted to go kill some English after Braveheart, who gets all gooey and patriotic for France when I listen to the Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables. I was ready for The Messenger to incite bloodlust, and I ended up checking my watch every ten minutes, wondering how much longer this damn movie would go on.
As in Braveheart, the English are the bad guys here, too, trying to overrun 15th century France. Charles VII (John Malkovich: Being John Malkovich, Con Air) — dauphin of France, a sort of king in waiting — doesn’t want to give it to them. We know this because a rather pompous opening crawl tells us so. (The most fun I had with The Messenger was in imagining how the guys from Monty Python would have burst the balloon of self-importance that hangs over this film, which usually meant just applying lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)
Into this climate of France’s oppression comes Joan, a peasant girl with a serious religious mania who goes to confession two or three times a day and talks to Jesus (a rather scruffy-looking fellow sitting on a stone throne in the middle of the woods, we learn from Joan’s hallucinations). When a sword appears beside her in a field one day, she takes this as a sign that God has chosen her to free France from tyranny, which conveniently also seems to fulfill a prophecy about a maiden who, well, will free France from tyranny. So by the time she comes to ask Charles for some armies, please, to fight the English, so much of the public is behind her that he cannot refuse.
The Messenger may be the first European art-house action movie, for interspersed with all the gory battles are lots of slow-motion shots of church bells ringing and time-lapse footage of roiling clouds, fields of flowers, and setting suns, all meant to suggest Joan’s communing with God, I suppose. And for every character like the bizarre and intense inquisitor (Dustin Hoffman: Wag the Dog, Rain Man) Joan encounters after her arrest by the English for heresy (she’s branded a witch for daring to say she speaks for God), there’s a guy like Joan’s right-hand dude Aulon (Desmond Harrington), whose modern slang and bland contemporary delivery is at least actively annoying, if never (unfortunately) funny.
Joan herself is an irritating amalgam of the modern and the medieval. Sure, it’s cool to see a woman wear armor and cut her hair short and ride into medieval battle. But why does the breastplate of her stylish armor leave her heart and lungs vulnerable to arrows? Why are her eyebrows plucked and her ears pierced? Why does her hair look like she paid $500 on Fifth Avenue to have it cut when it was the victim of a serial hacking from herself and another soldier?
Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to wait for Mel Gibson’s next down-