Joan of Arc

(Jeanne d'Arc aka The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson, France, 1999)


Back in the '80s, the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz made a tongue-in-cheek television documentary about the great icons of French history. When the program reached Joan of Arc, Ruiz opted for a frenetic montage of every actress who had ever incarnated her on screen, from Falconetti to Jean Seberg via Ingrid Bergman.

That montage would be even more hilarious and pointed today with the addition of the Joans of the '90s – sober Sandrine Bonnaire, intense Leelee Sobieski, and now punkish Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson's clueless epic.

One imagines that Besson, like Ruiz, studied all the previous films on Joan by luminaries including Dreyer, Rossellini, Bresson and Rivette. He must have decided that, since so much attention had already been lavished on Joan's trial and gruesome execution, he would focus instead on her battles.

This is the least religious film ever made about Joan. For Besson, the nature of her faith – the intensity of her spiritual conviction, and what it drove her to do – is of secondary interest at best. The central enigma of Joan's story – whether she really heard voices, or merely hallucinated them – hardly seems to count as a dramatic issue.

Besson's Joan is simply a woman with attitude. And the sole "dilemma" highlighted is the secular, moral problem of killing in wartime.

It is easy to mock the relaxed, contemporary feel of the gestures and dialogue in this movie (particularly lines such as: "He is formidable to men, and fascinating to women"). But Besson, as always, aims for maximum energy and viewer involvement rather than stuffy, spurious period authenticity.

There are fine actors on board (including Tchéky Karyo, John Malkovich and Vincent Cassel), some remarkable battle scenes, a few stirring symbolic images, and an excellent sound design based upon the properties of wind and voice. But the script (by Besson and the talented Andrew Birkin) is full of terrible contrivances – particularly Joan's mystical cellmate, The Conscience, who metamorphoses from a faux-Christ into a booming Dustin Hoffman.

MORE Besson: The Fifth Element, Taxi, Transporter 2, Unleashed, Léon: The Professional

© Adrian Martin February 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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