Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Messenger (1999)

 Joan of Arc: It's not my body I want to save. It's my soul.~from The Messenger (1999)
St. Joan of Arc is often described as a legend but she is much more than that. Of all the women in the millennium which we refer to as the Middle Ages, the life of Jeanne d'Arc, called La Pucelle or "The Maid," is one of the best documented. The records from the 1429 examination by the ecclesiastical court at Poitiers, as well as the transcripts from both her trial for heresy in 1431 and her posthumous retrial in 1456, are extant, providing reams of information about every detail of her life. We know more about the peasant girl from Lorraine, her personal habits and the way her mind worked, than we know about many a famous queen. When film makers, artists and writers decide to impose their own interpretations upon the life of the Maid, they should try to keep within the paradigms of the historical record in order to present an authentic portrait. In this way, we come close to discovering the real Joan. In her case, the documented evidence is so fascinating that there is no need for sensational inventions. To do so is to cheapen her story.

I had heard mostly bad things about Luc Besson's 1999 film The Messenger, starring his wife Milla Jovovich as Jeanne d'Arc. I did hear that the sets, costumes and battle scenes were authentic so I recently decided to give it a try. The film started out well, showing Joan as a child making use of frequent confession to overcome childish scruples and being wisely advised by her kindly parish priest. Then she is shown running blissfully through fields of flowers. In a schizophrenic manner, typical of the entire film, what follows is a brutal rape scene. The child witnesses the horrific death of her older sister Catherine, who has given up her hiding place to Joan. The happy little girl becomes brooding, catatonic and obsessed with religion. Thus the premise of the film is that Joan's extraordinary behavior is the result of psychological damage brought on by childhood trauma. Hence the frenzied determination to drive the English out of France.

The problem with basing a movie upon such a premise is that there is no record that Joan ever experienced any such trauma. Her family took refuge in an abandoned castle when the English attacked and neither of her two older sisters were raped or murdered. The depiction of the teenaged Joan as oscillating between nervous hysteria and maniacal shouting does not accurately reflect the many first-hand accounts of her behavior. But Besson's Joan acts like someone either crazy or on drugs. The visions are more like incoherent drug trips than the conversations with saints which the historical Joan repeatedly described. St. Catherine and St. Margaret are never mentioned; St. Michael appears in passing. Joan's calm and bold responses, which showed both wisdom, prudence and spiritual insight, are omitted.

I do not understand who the person on the stone throne is supposed to be. The person changes from a child to a middle-aged man. Joan had an image of God the Father enthroned on her banner so perhaps that is Who the person is supposed to be? Neither do I understand who the Dustin Hoffman character represents. Yes, Dustin Hoffman. At first I thought he was supposed to be the devil. Then I read somewhere that he represents Joan's conscience. As her conscience, he absolves her in the end, because through her sufferings she has expiated her guilt, inferring of course, that the troubled girl has acted out of guilt because her sister was raped and murdered in her place. But why not stick with what she actually said her visions were like? And why add some dark psychological aberration when what she endured was dark enough?

I am glad that there were some positive representations of Catholic clergy. In fact, Bishop Cauchon, who in reality did everything he could to get Joan sent to the stake, comes across as a sincere prelate in an unpleasant situation. Why change the truth? Joan's chastity is treated with respect as is her religious devotion most of the time. Her hope of heaven and fear of hell are both genuinely moving. But then, there is the odd episode of the missing Ampulla, like something from a Monty Python sketch, as are the various scenes with Joan's faithful captains, all slightly comedic and slapstick. Strange.

Yes, the sets and costumes are well-done. The ladies headdresses are correct; it is good to see the depiction of the Dauphin's mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, played with morbid ruthlessness by Faye Dunaway. John Malkovich's Dauphin is almost too cynical and much older than the real Charles VII was at time.We forget that medieval society was essentially run by teenagers and people in their twenties. Joan's military accomplishments and the miraculous occurrences which surrounded them are not in  any way mitigated in the film. Even though Joan is portrayed as being emotionally unstable she is shown to be a person who is surrounded by unexplained happenings. The Dustin Hoffman character tries to make Joan (and the viewers) believe that everything extraordinary that happened was merely Joan's imagination. It is necessary to recall that, for Joan's contemporaries, there was never any question about the extraordinary nature of her accomplishments. The question her contemporaries had was whether her miraculous feats were performed through the power of God or by means of witchcraft. The Besson film seeks to probe the mystery of the Maid and yet misses completely, for it cannot get beyond the drug culture, and replaces the spiritual life with psychobabble.



Jack B. said...

Besson and the people behind The Messenger had a pretty clear agenda in mind. They thought Joan was a lunatic and made her act like it. It's one thing if you actually believe voices of the saint spoke to Joan - but to make up stuff to justify your thesis that that she was crazy and to present her - who by all accounts was humorous, pious, common-sensical and matter of fact, as a screaming madwoman is beyond the pale. Especially when there is a LOT of historical evidence to the contrary.

MadMonarchist said...

To me it seemed like so many films these days; great on all the technical aspects but deplorable in terms of story or "heart". There was no one to cheer for, everyone was either evil or crazy and they seemed to find it impossible to accept that anyone could have pure motives. Joan had to be driven by revenge and the story of St Joan is probably a tough one because there really is no way to explain away her case. There is simply no way to explain how an almost illiterate peasant girl could be given command of an army and then go on to lead that army to victory if you discount divine intervention. I'm sure for an atheist, that's a big problem and it is no wonder it was not a smashing success.

BTW, I have heard for years now that the man behind "Braveheart" has been planning to do a film on St Joan and he seems determined to get it right. That being said, the word has been going around for a good number of years now and still no movie, so...