Review of Luc Besson's film THE MESSENGER:

by Mr. Francois THOUVENIN

[ Mr. Thouvenin lives in Strasbourg, France, and he writes from the perspective of a French Catholic.He emailed me this review of the movie]

Action Girl Rides Again?

Hello, Virginia! I've seen Jeanne d'Arc by Besson yesterday with my daughter (age 29), and I really have mixed feelings about it (as was to be foreseen!).

1. The actress - Physically, she does not resemble my mental image of Joan (and yours, perhaps) because she has this "top-model touch" so appreciated nowadays (cold green eyes, thick lips, lean and hard adult body, hot-stuff, sex-appeal) and far from the general aspect you would expect from a young Middle Age French shepherd. But she is convincing all the same, since she obviously invested herself quite a lot in this role. She even manages to be weak and moving when she is supposed to. On the whole, she IS Joan all right, particularly thanks to her unbelievable stamina and personal authority.

2. The other actors - Beautiful casting, particularly Joan's companions: rowdy, hard-headed, born-killers, but gradually enthralled (and perhaps redeemed, except for Gilles de Rey, of course) by Joan's extraordinary charisma.

3. The script, etc. - First surprise, though Joan is shown as a little girl (having funny visions, hearing funny noises and seeing her elder sister being murdered and raped - in this order - by an English soldier), absolutely nothing is said about her first struggle for being listened to by the local big wheels (the Sieur de Vaucouleurs, among others). Next thing you know: she's announced at the court of the yet un-crowned Dauphin! How's that for a shortcut?... Second surprise, Jesus Christ comes into the picture, but the actor's face does not even remotely remind us of Our Lord's face as magnificently shown by the Holy Shroud of Turin. Some excellent scenes though, as Joan enters Orleans, the underfed and terrorized peasants religiously come and touch her thighs and horse while she goes by, since they do hope this virgin, heralded for some time and supposedly sent by God, will save them at last from the hated English. Besson did a fine job too when Joan finally arrives at the Dauphin's court and recognizes the future Charles VII from among the crowd. Something really magic happens then... And the battle scenes! It's blood and guts all over the place! Just like Braveheart, only worse! Nothing to do with Rivette, (who made two films about Joan of Arc in 1994 -- Virginia Frohlick) to be sure!

4. The visual aspect - The costumes and armours are second to none. They couldn't look more real, more naturally worn. The colors and photography are great too.

5. The general philosophy behind the movie - Ay, there's the rub!... You see, Besson must be a half-believer (if not an outright unbeliever) AND IT SHOWS, because as such, he cannot imagine supernatural visions or messages in a simple way, and he trusts his ARTISTIC IMAGINATION, not Joan's experience as reported by tradition. Well, he should not, because the result is almost ridiculous. Was it so difficult for him to show a girl seeing and/or hearing supernatural beings and/or messages in the same way as the old story goes? Besson tried to be original and ambiguous, probably in the hope of escaping the French critics' sarcasms over his would-be "superstition". The result is that no-one can guess whether he actually believes Joan or not. By the way, there is something most revealing that you should know: in France, the title of the film is Jeanne d'Arc, when in America, it is The Messenger, and there is nothing innocent about this discrepancy. France has become a fanatically atheist nation, whereas America has kept a reasonable part of its original faith (whether Catholic or Protestant), and this makes all the difference. Sad as it is, in my country, nowadays, nobody can admit in public that he/she believes in God, for he/she would expose him/herself to immediate mockery and hatred. This was particularly evident when Besson was interviewed on a TV channel about his movie: after a few short excerpts, he had a long talk with the journalist, and both managed not to say a word about the transcendental aspect of Joan's life!! Can you imagine that? As if Joan's story had any interest whatsoever (and any possibility of existence, to start with!) if it lacked this transcendental dimension! Sad, incredible, but true...

And now, about the other big snag: the very first thing that appears on the screen is "Thou shall not kill"... as if this commandment should have any bearing on a war situation where a nation had to free itself from another nation's rule! Besson's generation has been raised in the sound of non-violent sirens, and there you can hear them! Otherwise, how could he make such a fuss over Joan's having to debate with her "conscience" (Dustin Hoffman) about her supposed pride, ruthlessness and cruelty!... As if - having been commanded by God to oust the English from France - she was only supposed to knock gently at Orleans' doors and politely whisper "Sorry to have to ask for it, gentlemen, but please, would you be so kind as to pack up your things and go back to England peacefully... at your earliest convenience, of course?" It just does not fit with Joan's story, the spirit of her time and, above all, the God of Old Testament, Who more than once sent His angel of death to exterminate the armies opposing Israel! Well, this looks to be too much for soft-hearted Besson, who - there again - INVENTED for Joan a lingering sense of guilt. OK, it is a well-know fact that she did not gleefully bask in enemy blood and that just after some of her battles, she was enough of a woman and a loving soul to cry over the dead, French or English. It is a well-known fact, too, that in the end, she had doubts about her visions and her mission, but it is ludicrous to try to make us believe that when all her (military) battles were through, she still felt sorry for having had shed English blood: it HAD to be done since God had ordered it, full stop. And done it was: Orleans was re-conquered, and the no-good Dauphin was crowned at last. On the other hand, maybe Besson thought that the incredible pressure endured by Joan during her trial gave her this excessive sense of guilt, which is at least plausible. To be quite frank, I'd rather not know that OUR beloved saint had to suffer that much, on top of all the rest! But unfortunately (and on second thought), the Besson's hypothesis cannot be dismissed so easily...

Hope I have not been too confusing! Do not be mistaken: despite all these fussy critics and reserves, I LOVED THE FILM (and my daughter did too), if only because during more than two hours and a half, it gave our hearts a most welcome opportunity to beat at the same hectic pace as Joan's (but not with all her love and generosity, alas!). Do not miss The Messenger, and please tell me in your turn how you reacted to it!

Besson's movie, my second thoughts (again! Just like me!...), I think he definitely missed the supernatural dimension of Joan's life, mission, works and death, which was much to be feared. His movie gave me a big knock, all right, but just because this guy's way of filming is incredibly showy, razzle-dazzle, hence superficial. True, his actress does fairly well, but only within Besson's own limits, which appear sooner than usual with such a subject. There is a big point that I completely missed in my first "critic": in the movie Joan is supposed to be motivated mainly by a spirit of vengeance (!!) since she is supposed to hate the English, who are supposed to have raped and murdered her beloved sister. Well, all these suppositions are very far indeed from the historic truth, as you obviously know. The trouble with Besson is that he is a bulldozer AND a non-believer. The trouble with The Messenger is that both these defects are united in the same movie. Such a story as Joan of Arc should not to be defiled by a gross "caricature of Hollywood" approach, and in a way, it was... You still may go and see it, since it is very spectacular and entertaining, and you will not get bored, but that's all: the true "flesh-and-blood-and-spirit" Joan will always escape the grasp of any film-maker (most of all nowadays!).

POST SCRIPT: email from Francois

Hi, Virginia ! Just as I feared : you loathed it ! I must confess that I feel ashamed to have sounded so LENIENT with this movie in my first commentaries about it. This is due to the fact that Besson is a very efficient and spectacular film-maker, hence my first (partially) approving appreciation of his movie. He simply shot us a line and got us bluffed ! On second thought, my daughter and myself wondered why we were so staggered while we came out of the theatre and how we could have swallowed such bullshit as the psychedelic visions (of what ? of "whom" ?), the merry-runnin'-in-the-grass, the sister's rape, the torrid hugging of the dauphin by Jo, etc. etc., not to speak of the "dialogue" with a tortured (Dusty !...) conscience !... The trouble is that Besson behaved in this beautiful subject like a T-Rex in a china shop, and we realized (a bit late) that he had almost entirely marred it ! Please have mercy of a sucker for action and do not print the most apologetic parts of my review !... You definitely deserve to be a Joan's admirer much more than I do, but I'll try and remember this lesson of critical mind that you just gave me !

Virginia Frohlick-Saint Joan of Arc Center