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Luc Besson's Crazy Saint Joan

The last feature film on the life of Joan of Arc of the 20th century was made by French director Luc Besson. Called Jeanne d'Arc in its French release, the English version is known as The Messenger (1999).

That a Frenchman could make such a negative film about a French national heroine and get some good French reviews goes to show just how far Joan of Arc has fallen in the French psyche.

Besson planned the film around his then-squeeze Milla Jovovich and it makes ultimate use of her spastic acting style. Her hair changes frequently, but when it's short it makes her look like she's conducting electricity.

The international cast includes big American names John Malkovich as Charles VII, Faye Dunaway as his mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon, and Dustin Hoffman as a creepy figment of Joan's hallucinatory imagination.

The script by Besson and Andrew Birkin sets Joan up as an incipient nut case by showing her as a child (Jane Valentine) who has visions of a sullen boy who grows up to be a bug-eyed parody of Jesus.

Besson strips Joan of her traditional virginal attribute by having her vicariously raped while hiding in a cabinet behind her sister (Joanne Greenwood). The sister is already dead so it is eight-year-old Joan who experiences the rape. We've already seen her running sword in hand with a pack of wolves. In the last frame before the jump to grown-up Joan, we see the child in a religious frenzy, her mouth and chin streaming with blood-red communion wine.

Besson couldn't make his message any plainer from the get-go. Joan of Arc was a bloodthirsty wench. Her adult persona derived from peculiar religious tendencies intensified by childhood trauma and a desire for revenge. The rest of the movie shows the adult Joan having screaming fits while body parts fly in showers of blood.

Unlike Christian Duguay who gives his Joan only one of the saint's traditional comrades-in-arms, Besson casts all the main ones: Alençon (Pascal Greggory), Dunois (Tchéky Karyo), LaHire (Richard Ridings), and Gilles de Rais (Vincent Cassel). Georges de la Trémoïlle, historically an enormously fat enemy of Joan, also makes the cut as one of the fit fighting men on her team. Much of the time they act like beer-drinking football players after a game.

Joan's steward Jean d'Aulon (Desmond Harrington) has been made into a kind of keeper who is constantly telling Joan to calm down.

Joan's arch-enemy Pierre Cauchon (Timothy West) is played as a kindly priest who just wants to save her from the stake. Queen Yolande is portrayed as a cold-hearted manipulator who cares nothing for Joan's well-being.

The most unfortunate aspect of The Messenger is that it is the definitive film about Joan of Arc for a lot of people.

The story of Joan of Arc is mysterious and people of our century don't like mysteries. Especially not spiritual mysteries. They want explanations. They're more comfortable with Freud and schizophrenia than they are with angels.

I don't know if the young woman from Lorraine saw angels or not. She said she did. She didn't ride into Chinon out of nowhere and persuade the king with her barely coherent ravings to put her at the head of an army. She came with the recommendation of one of the King's provincial governors and, possibly, that of the Duke of Lorraine.

She didn't scream at the people who flocked reverently to her; she talked to them, gave money to the poorest, and won their unconditional love.

The historical record reveals a Joan who was a genuinely religious person who spoke and behaved rationally. She was an effective military leader for nearly two years before being dragged fighting off her horse and sold to the English.

If your only impressions of Joan of Arc derive from Besson's film, you owe it to yourself to see something better.

The best Joan of Arc film in my estimation remains the one that stars Ingrid Bergman. And I just had a look at the unedited version which appears to be a lot better than the one that was released in 1948. More on that later.

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