About "The Messenger"


Marko Kaasik

Tartu, Estonia

(37 years old)



Analytical review

I started to write this piece, because I think that not all aspects of this difficult movie are comprehensively analyzed in previous overviews. Better late than never! Please forgive me my "international" English, not rich enough and probably influenced by my non-indo-European mother tongue.

My understanding is certainly affected by the fact that I am a non-believer and materialist. But, like any serious materialist, I accept that the vast part of reality is not understood yet by the modern science. Rejecting visions and miracles as non-existing issues, we can make a fatal mistake, simplifying the world around us. I had such "quasi-non-existing" experiences in my life.

On the other hand, I admire Milla’s talent as it is. The way, how she plays in general (incl. Joan) fits with my own temperament and life experience. Nevertheless, I tried to keep my head cool, when writing the words below (as much as possible).

My first impression: this was a good French movie! Despite Hollywood-style special effects and many actors from abroad, Luc Besson managed to put naturally together extremely tragic, comic and lovely scenes on the screen, unbelievably amplifying the emotional charge. Romantic (in classical sense, such like in creations by V. Hugo and G. Byron, not in nowadays common sense) pathos is carried out through the entire movie. Emotions are changing kaleidoscopically, taking us into a different world for two and a half-hours.

The only disappointing scene is the murdering and raping of Joan’s sister. Not only because this is not true, and not at all because of its brutality (I don’t like war movies, where brutal scenes are hidden "behind the cadre"), but due to a more basic shortcoming: one cannot explain the following events by that simple way! Appearing of such extraordinary personalities like Joan is always a mystery far beyond all vulgar-Freudistic concepts.

In general, the story follows historical truth, or at least it’s logic. It is natural to "condense" the truth in some scenes for better understanding and emotionality. As far as I know, none of most important historical personalities is missing. Of course, there are made minor "corrections": king Charles VII (played very impressively by J. Malkovich) is too aged, d’Aulon and La Hire are too young. These details are important: they make a teenage or slightly older spectator to believe that Joan was a natural member of the military leadership and not of the French court. (These two "parties" were often opposed to each other indeed) and this belief is based on the parallel with the well-known conflict of generations. One can say that Besson is manipulating the public, but this movie has actually two-level structure: the real events of 15th century and more basic existential problems. The latter is taken closer to a typical spectator, who deals not very much with historical details. Thanks to Luc for that!

Although expert reviewers mention several minor errors depicting the life and war scenes, look those exceptionally realistic and impressive in general, both in technical and psychological sense. Recently I visited the Mason of Joan of Arc in Orleans where is kept the armor worn by Milla Jovovich (as Joan). I saw it from very close distance. I did not even resist to my curiosity and touched a part of it. This armor was made of real heavy iron, not like brightly shining aluminum one of Ingrid Bergman from Fleming’s (1949) film. It seems even more realistic than necessary barely to take a movie! And, of course, some physical strength was needed to wear it with elegance.

It is evident that Milla felt her role not only by her mind, but by her body as well. Although her face does not correspond exactly to the few known historical descriptions of Joan, she looks wiry and vigorous enough to make us believe in the character she portrayed. In this point not all-previous movies are good enough.

There is a historical scene very precisely and in detail included into the movie: the beginning of attack to St. Loup. Joan is sleeping, when the citizens of Orleans are attempting an unsuccessful attack. She wakes up and shouts that French blood is being shed. She dresses herself quickly, mounts to the horse, d’Aulon gives her banner to her hand through the window and in next moment she is gone – to the battle. This exceptionally dynamic scene is one of the best in this movie

A minor drawback, by my opinion, is the weather. Actually the campaign of Orleans, as well as execution of Joan took place in May and siege of Paris in August, i.e. late spring and midsummer. According to the climate of France, there should be greenery and dominating sunshine everywhere. In this movie we see the opposite: nasty autumn and winter. In this sense several other movies are incorrect as well.

It is, however, not an easy task to analyze the spiritual world of this film, but passing it would mean virtually passing all the film. It is contradictory indeed and most probably was planned just as such by filmmakers. We don’t see any traditional imaginations of saints, which are believed seen by Joan. I think, that is well done, because shaming puppet-angel of the earliest (1916) Joan-movie and not much better appearance in "Joan of Arc" (television miniseries broadcast by CBS, 1999) do not definitely fit into the intense plot of "The Messenger". There are several dynamic light effects and meaningful transformations of everyday items instead, which is natural for altered states of consciousness (these, however, do not rule out the angels "behind the cadre"). During entire movie Joan is followed by a male spiritual being appearing as a boy in her childhood, a middle-aged man when Joan is carrying out her fights and an elder man, when she is captured and facing death (last one portrayed by Dustin Hoffman). Who is he? We can think of this character as Joan’s conscience, but he could just as easily be understood as God or Devil as well! The events occurring with the strong but sensitive nature of Joan sweep out the clear boundary between her "self" and "non-self". Moreover, she enters to the dangerous but beautiful part of the spiritual world, where antonyms "good" and "evil" are not well defined anymore.

Two scenes of that movie are especially impressive.

First: Joan is making His face to bleed. He asks: "Joan, what are you doing?"

Joan answers: "I am playing!"

She is playing with her own life, with lives of many other people, with history and destiny. She is born for that, she cannot do otherwise. In 17 years she does not imagine the final meaning of her actions and does not feel very much responsibility. And this "innocence" of youth does not allow her to fear and to hesitate about her mission. She affects her troops emotionally by a strange mixture of courage and female charm. Only after the battle is over, she feels herself so empty and sad, looking at blood and dead bodies around that becomes to cry like a child. But not before the danger is over! She overcomes rapidly her weakness and becomes to care compassionately about bodies and souls of French and captured English warriors.

Second: Joan in jail, waiting the execution. He (Dustin Hoffman) is accusing her for her sins. She feels the blood of French and English soldiers on her hands despite she personally did not kill anybody and despite he fought for her fatherland. It is not less important that she is betrayed, captured, distressed and cannot complete her mission. People around her (French king, the churchmen) made strange and jealous things that she does not understand by her straightforward mind. She needs mental support from anybody, but she hasn’t.

And suddenly Joan is begging Him (who has no tendency to forgive her) to bless her. And he (this character could represent Joan's conscience, or perhaps the Universe?) does! She finds herself outside of herself and the people’s world and most probably finds togetherness with all existing things beyond the good and evil. She understands the "beauty of inhumanity" (world around us does not care about our pain, but it is beautiful!) and becomes a saint in mental sense.

How much fits the Luc’s and Milla’s imagination with the real Joan known from the history? We never will know the whole truth. But many of her quoted verbal expressions and descriptions of eyewitnesses refer to an impulsive and temperament person, controlled only partially (but in most important part!) by her rational mind. However, the filmmakers hyperbolized these strains with a clear aim to make the movie more suggestive and to line out its spiritual dimension.

When interpreting all the material written about Joan down through the ages, we have to keep in mind a very humane tendency or desire to "make" a hero or a saint. Thus all corrupt or contradictory lineaments are ruled out, leaving a primitively "positive" imagination of a great personality, which has, may-be, very little to do with a person once really existed. It is evident that such a process began already at the trial of rehabilitation of Joan (1453-1456), when the king (with clear patriotic aim) from one side initiated the rehabilitation and questioned people from other side remembered her as a pious girl, good Christian etc. only. On the other hand, however, we cannot trust, very much, the stenography of the condemnation trial due to opposite bias. Consequently, the most reliable facts about her originate probably her comrades and people who occasionally met her. They putted down several her statements, like:

- "Nevertheless, before mid-Lent, I must be with the Dauphin, even if I have to wear my legs down to my knees!"

- "For even if I had had a hundred fathers and mothers and were a king's daughter, still would I go!"

- "Bastard! Bastard! [Duke Dunois] In God's name! I command you that as soon as you learn of Falstaff's arrival that you will inform me. For if he passes by without my knowledge, I promise you that I shall have your head cut off!"

- "Ha! Never did I see French blood flow but my hair did not stand on end!"

These and many more of her statements fill our mind with an image of a young exalted lady shouting courageously, with eyes flashing and body moving vigorously, perhaps somewhat nervously. Just like in Besson’s movie.

Joan in "The Messenger" hardly smiles or expresses any positive emotions except when communicating with the "other world". According to the messages of eyewitnesses, this is not exactly true. But her image fits well with the (doubtful) concept of severe mental violation in her childhood. Is that needed to satisfy such kind of spectator, who is expecting (psycho) logical explanation for everything happening with a human being?

One of my countrymen (Orientals-researcher by profession) said once that he knows only one successful attempt to portray a saint in film – Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi (1982). This was said far before Luc Besson turned to the theme of Joan of Arc. Although I am not so critical concerning the world’s heritage of cinematography, I accept that it is extremely difficult to do that and most of attempts did not succeed. But I am sure that Milla Jovovich did not fail, because she played an intimate personality, not an imagination of a canonized saint.

In my country this movie had both remarkable commercial success and met moderately friendly opinions from reviewers. Filmmakers got close to an open-minded spectator, when asking existential questions rather than answering those. There is no unique answer!

December 2003