1999 may be remembered as the year of Joan of Arc: NBC created a miniseries in her honor, Carl Dreyer's long-lost The Passion of Joan of Arc
was discovered in a mental hospital, and Facets re-released Jacques Rivette's Joan the Maid
. Luc Besson rounds out the corpus with his stylistic and vaguely heretical grand-scale feature, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) challenges established notions about the Maid of Orleans as he creates a decidedly more human heroine than have previous biopics. The story line is the same--a young, illiterate peasant girl convinces the dauphin of France to give her an army, and she leads them to victory in Orleans, only to be burned at the stake for heresy--but Milla Jovovich, in the title role, is a woman possessed. Her influences are less than heavenly; as a child she witnesses the murder of her sister by the English, a death caused by the sister's giving her hiding place to young Joan, which causes an intense desire for revenge. Yes, God still speaks to Joan, but even this is undermined, as Dustin Hoffman, playing The Conscience, questions her motives.
Cinematically, The Messenger is stunning, with fantastical sequences of Joan in communication with higher powers. Yet the graphic violence (scenes include random decapitation and a dog gnawing on a body); the uneven accents, which make it difficult to tell who is fighting on which side; and the rewriting of lore may make this version of Joan of Arc appeal only to Besson fans. Jovovich is convincing, and while at times the film may drag (at times you wish they'd hurry up and burn her), it is a remarkable and insightful retelling of a well-known piece of history. --Jenny Brown