I'm writing this while the experience of this movie-making travesty is still fresh in my mind (It opened Friday 11/12/99 and I saw it in the early afternoon with my wife and our two high-school teenagers).
As usual I had again been reading (since childhood) the latest book about Jeanne d'Arc when news came that the Luc Besson movie had began shooting two summers ago (1998). Anticipation and excitement filled my heart. My hope was that this new movie would reach the same level of excellence as that of "Braveheart"-certainly Besson had enough money-$60 million. But when I learned Milla Jovovich would play Jeanne and John Malkovich Charles VII, my hopes sank. Any fool could see those two were poorly suited for those parts. Malkovich would have made a great Bishop Cauchon or Archbishop of Reims (as they were in real life-not how they were portrayed in "The Messenger"); Jovovich would have made a great Catherine d'Arc (Jeanne's sister who most definitely did not die as depicted in "The Messenger") or Mary of Anjou (wife to Charles VII since 1422). Certainly her minimal acting skills would have been more closely matched to such a role. Still, I told myself, with all those millions and the promised research together with their European connections, who knows, I might be surprised? I so wanted it to be the case that someone would finally "get it" and tell the real Jeanne d'Arc story and not produce another sentimental or distorted film version like some that were made earlier this century.
My heart sank even further when the Jeanne d'Arc CBS miniseries aired in May this year. They had $25 million to work with, but still managed to miss the mark by nine yards. Again, the biggest flaw in the CBS production was the premise-they too were afraid to tell the real story. They chose to tell the "Maid of Lorraine" story, the re-enactment of a myth come to life, and failed miserably both in the writing and the acting. But memory plays funny tricks on us. By the time I had read Besson's PR campaign and watched his carefully crafted Internet and cable TV "trailers," my hope had overwhelmed all logic: I couldn't wait to see the newest Jeanne d'Arc movie.
With the opening credits to "The Messenger," I knew it was going to be a long two and a half hours. As the historical set-up scrolled up the screen, the audience was led to believe that the 100 Years War began in 1420 with the Treaty of Troyes. Help! (The English invasion of France commencing that war began in 1337.) The rest of the movie was a downhill plunge. From the opening scene of ten-year-old Jeanne going to confession to tell the priest about her Voices (never happened; until her first meeting with Charles VII, the only person she told about her Voices was her uncle) to the final scene where Jeanne is burning and looking at a church cross without uttering the word "Jesus," there's hardly a word of truth in this entire movie.
It is true that Jeanne d'Arc: was raised in Domremy, France; met Charles VII at his castle in Chinon; fought and helped win back the city of Orleans to the French cause; led the French armies through English-held territory to Reims where Charles VII was crowned King; was captured at Compiègne, sold to the English, and burned to death at Rouen. It's also true that most of the main characters depicted in "The Messenger" lived and were participants in the Jeanne d'Arc story, but that pretty much summarizes the total truth contained in this movie. The characterizations, the motives, and physical appearance of most were badly mis-represented.
Example number one: Charles VII. In real life, John Malkovich appears to be middle-aged, right? Moderately attractive; five-ten to six feet tall; in good physical shape, able to walk and move with grace and high energy, right? The character Malkovich played could do none of these things. Charles VII was short (barely more than five feet), ugly (distorted nose and mouth, sparse hair), suffered from swollen joints and moved about in continuous pain and with great difficulty. Furthermore, he was only 26 (not 35 or 45) when he and Jeanne met. His mother-in-law (Queen Yolande of Sicily-Faye Dunaway in this production) was a big part of his life. She'd raised him since he was 10, but she was far more beautiful than Dunaway and their relationship was more like mother and son. She loved him as a parent and he loved her as a mother -substitute. Most of their frank discussions took place behind closed doors, not in front of such opportunists as the Archbishop of Reims or de la Trémoïlle. Queen Yolande was experienced at governance, but above all cared about Charles as a person.
Charles was a sensitive, weak, bright, introverted, and traumatized young man. By the time Jeanne showed up in his life, he was a highly confused about what he was supposed to do with his life, and whether or not he should continue the fight against the English. In fact, he had already made plans to flee to Spain or Scotland if things turned really ugly in early 1429. He prayed about these sorts of dilemmas a great deal. Charles, his wife, and Yolande were extremely pious and attended daily mass. Charles also believed in magic and astrology, but then so did all Europe. That was a part of every day life in early 15th century. He, along with most everyone else, believed without reservation the prediction by the mythical Merlin the magician that "a virgin would save France." He just prayed that she would come in time to help him. One thing he knew, as much or more than anyone else, was that the only thing that could save France and his claim to the crown in March of 1429 was a miracle.
It's not Malkovich's fault he is so much better-looking and in such better shape and so much older than Charles VII; it is his fault that he agreed to play this part once Besson exercised the poor judgment to ask him. As Charles VII, Malkovich is a distraction and disaster. Not only does he not look and act the part, but he's forced by the script to become the same old cliched version of one of the most complex and important men in the history of the world. With all that money and time to research this subject in the French archives, one would think Besson could have looked beyond his atheistic agenda and found the real Charles. How sad and what a bore that he chose not to! Worse yet, Charles definitely DID NOT betray Jeanne and set her up for capture by the Burgundians. Besson's movie is flat wrong on that fact as it is about most of its other historical representations.
Example number two: Milla Jovovich. Both she and Besson should have quit while they were ahead with "The Fifth Element". There she turned looking and acting stupid into an art form; in The Messenger, she and her ex-husband turned those same meager acting skills into some kind of a "virtual drug trip" gone bad. Bolts of light shooting from the sky for reasons the movie never explains, a sword that appears out of nowhere, marauding wolves racing past her in the middle of the forest, rubbing her face with the battlefield blood of her fellow countrymen in some fictionalized attack of guilt-give me a break! Jovovich and Besson's atheistic predilections are once again shining bright and clear for all to see. In a November 11th interview with "The Los Angeles Times," Jovovich admitted, "I think there is no God." In the same interview, she spoke of Jeanne d'Arc in these words: "She had her good points and her bad points . . . but she is responsible for death. So what about that? What about that dark pocket that nobody has really reached into?"
No wonder Besson was able to round up $60 million dollars for a Jeanne d'Arc project, while so many others can't find a penny. This project wasn't intended to bring us the real Jeanne; it was to be a vehicle for Jovovich and Besson and their respective careers, but also to vilify La Pucelle. After all, it just wouldn't do to have a female teenage action-hero who was pious and good and a leader of men; there just had to be something wrong with her. Let's see, what can we come up with? Yes, it's true she was canonized a saint, but don't you see that's the whole point. If we can make the case that she was deranged or suffering from some kind of emotional trauma, then we won't be seen as directly attacking her good name, but meanwhile we can undermine her sainthood, the Catholic Church, and get rich to boot. Now there's a parley too good to resist!
So what do we get? A 15th century PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Jeanne who has: seen her older sister killed and raped (completely gratuitously) mere inches from where she was hiding from pillaging English troops; become horrified at the brutality and bloody carnage of battle; sublimated her true feelings and lurched ahead into one battle after another, unable to stop because to do so would mean she would have to face her own supposed guilt (In reality, Catherine, Jeanne's sister, died in childbirth. --Virginia Frohlick). Talk about re-inventing history. To Besson and Jovovich, history is just the raw material of storytelling-it can be manipulated and formed to suit their purposes; truth has no meaning in their new-age view of the world. The only truth that matters to them is their truth. "I'm not a historian looking for truth," he told "The Los Angeles Times." "I'm just an artist."
And now for the "coup de grâce." Enter Dustin Hoffman. When I first learned he was in the cast for this movie, I hoped they were going to perform some make-up magic and have him play Charles VII; certainly his height and nose would have more closely resembled that character. But once again I was disappointed. Instead, we get Hoffman the Grand Inquisitor, an invented character. Let me explain. Throughout "The Messenger," there were silent apparitions of males (always approximately Jeanne's age-at least at first) who pointed accusing fingers at her whenever a shaft of light bolted from the sky and struck her. When Jeanne is finally captured by her enemies, Hoffman shows up to play the role of her conscience while she's in captivity and unable to receive the sacraments. He accuses her of many sins, and when he finally beats her into an admission that she has sinned, Hoffman quickly grants her absolution. What? you ask. How is that possible? Don't ask Besson or Jovovich, they're just artists. They're not historians looking for truth. That would inconvenient. They needed a vehicle with which to destroy her good name and the Grand Inquisitor filled the bill. Maybe Edmund Morris once worked for Besson; there seems to be an epidemic out there.
The truth is that Jeanne was held in captivity from May 1430 until a year later when she was finally burned at the stake as a witch and heretic. The truth is that Jeanne was captured purely by accident (Charles had no knowledge of where she was fighting; the two had parted company, agreeing to disagree). He wanted her to remain a part of his household. He had already ennobled her and all her family; Jeanne was anxious to get away from the royal court with all its petty intrigue and back stabbing. She also had run out of patience with Charles and his preoccupation with trying to negotiate a settlement with the Duke of Burgundy who, in her eyes, could not be trusted. Her Voices had told her that she would be captured, but she should not worry: God would be with her at all times and protect her. She simply misunderstood what the Voices meant and would later ask God's forgiveness for not really "listening" to the words of her Voices.
The truth is that Jeanne was one of the most personally humble people to ever inhabit this planet, but she was grossly misunderstood by the people of her day as well as those of today. She really believed God wanted her to act with self-confidence and singular purpose to defeat the English and return France to God. She really believed that if she were acting improperly, her Voices would admonish her. Lord knows, they had in the past when she failed because of a lack of faith or trust in her God. She never acted for her own aggrandizement; always it was for God, always her "gentle Dauphin," another worldly instrument of His plan.
Besson and Jovovich never did understand that. What a blasphemy against all Catholics and the good name of Jeanne d'Arc for them to paint her as some kind of 15th century psychotic. That characterization began with the gratuitous scene of Jeanne, the vengeful 10-year-old, whose deep grief compels her to break into a church and gulp down holy wine because she "wants answers now!" How disgusting! Jeanne would never have done such a thing. The Besson-Jovovich desecration of Jeanne's good name and character continues throughout the movie and culminates with her fretting and whimpering as the English gleefully watch her burn to death. That's not how it happened at all. The truth is Jeanne remained silent as she burned except to prayerfully repeat one word over and over: "Jesus!" Almost everyone present turned away at the sight of what was happening. Many cried. Many left the scene. Many shouted, "We have burned a saint!"
Besson and Jovovich couldn't stand that. How can Jeanne be a saint if there's no God? There are none so blind as those who will not see. They never did see and they never will. Besson, Jovovich, and their fellow travelers are like the English who thought burning Jeanne would rid them of her once and for all. How pathetic were the English; how transparent are these two atheists. What a sorry excuse for a movie is "The Messenger," yet its title alone held such promise. But now we're once again left hoping for that promise to be realized, that someone will understand the real Jeanne and have the guts to put that story on the screen so the world will finally know about one of the most important women in the history of the world. I pray I live that long. Besson and Jovovich have probably set that possibility back another 10-20 years. What a shame that is for all of us-whatever our religious convictions.
Mike MacCarthy's website is: http://maidengeneral.tumblr.com/