THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is case in point. Where previous versions of the Joan of Arc story Carl Dreyers The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is widely regarded as one of the all-time great films; the stolid Ingrid Bergman version Saint Joan (1948); and the terrible Otto Preminger-Jean Seberg version Saint Joan (1957) have tended to treat the story as an historical film, concentrating on Joans persecution and martyrdom, Luc Besson treats the story of Joan of Arc as a kind of crazed religious action film. The historical story gets engulfed by the insistently in-your-face-spectacularity of Luc Bessons canvas. In the opening scenes, for example, the child Joan runs across fields of flowers but not just one field but multiple fields of flowers that come in a different colour with each successive shot; when Joan runs away from her parents, she doesnt merely flee but conducts an epic flight across vast fields and a bare hill-line that is starkly illuminated by a single tree. Where all previous versions of the Joan of Arc story have kept a discreet distance from commenting on whether Joans visions were real or not, Luc Besson lacks any such hesitancy and leaps right in there with her in a full flight of Catholic passion filled with speeded-up clouds scudding across the sky with CGI faces emerging and stained glass windows exploding to life.
Oddly enough, while Luc Bessons approach may make historical purists balk, it is in these areas rather than the martyrdom and trial aspects, that The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc eventually works. The Messenger is the first version of any Joan of Arc story to treat Joan as a psychological study rather than as an objective historic force. For all that The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc was slammed for Milla Jovovich (the former Mrs Luc Besson)s performance, Jovovich does well in the part. She and Besson give us an insanely crazed Joan who rallies her troops with a reckless certainty in guiding divine purpose and a charged-up intensity that seems to spill over at the edges with holy fire. It is a performance where you can see just what it was about such a character that she inspired a king and an entire army to follow a teenage girl into battle.
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc works the best during the middle where Luc Bessons Braveheart (1985)-styled widescreen action scope and his personalized portrait of Joan comes to the fore. However, it is during the trial scenes, which have usually been the dramatic highlight of previous versions (notably the Dreyer version), that the film falls apart. These seem conducted with a lack of dramatic interest upon Luc Bessons part. The use of Dustin Hoffman as the voice of Joans conscience is a plot device that is downright bizarre. Moreover, Besson ends up creating a film that is divided against itself. Most other versions of the Joan story have remained at a discreet distance from commenting on the actuality of Joans visions (and the inevitable question that goes with it of whether she was insane or divinely guided) and have concentrated instead on the historical events surrounding her not so Luc Besson. What one finds difficult to swallow about Bessons treatment is that it comes served with a complete lack of critical regard. Accepting Joans visions at face value requires an unquestioning acceptance of Catholic dogma and the absurd notion that God fights on the side of France.
In the latter third of the film, Besson and scriptwriter Andrew Birkin try to belatedly catch up and start analyzing Joans motivation and The Messenger turns it into an historic psychoanalysis session of sorts. Unfortunately, one could not help but compare Milla Jovovich with Dustin Hoffman as the voice of conscience to Edward Norton and the phantom Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1999), which was released only a month earlier, whereupon The Messenger started to collapse into unintentional laughter. The end result, in questioning every single detail of Joans motivation, creates so much confusion that The Messenger disappears into a morass of doubt as to whether she is deluded and self-aggrandizing or whether her visions were genuine. Dustin Hoffmans final granting of redemption at the end would seem to indicate the latter but by then so much doubt has been piled on Joans character that the film trails off into nebulous uncertainty. That may well be exactly the way the historic Joan appears when you try to get a grasp on her as a character but it makes for a muddle as a film.
Luc Bessons other films of genre note are the arty Le Dernier Combat (1983) set in a post-holocaust world where people have become mute; the space opera/action film The Fifth Element (1997); the eccentric angelic intervention film Angel-A (2005); Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), a part-live, part-animated film based on his own childrens books about adventures in a land of miniaturized people, and its sequels Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard (2009) and Arthur and the Two Worlds War (2010); the adventure film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010); Lucy (2014) in which Scarlett Johansson gains enormously expanded mental abilities; and the space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). Besson also produced and wrote The Dancer (2000) about a mute dancer who gains expression through a unique sound invention; produced the mystical quasi-sf Quebecois film Chaos and Desire (2002): wrote and produced the End Times serial killer thriller Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse (2003); produced the serial killer film Tristan (2003); produced and wrote the futuristic action film Banlieue 13 (2004) and its sequel Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (2009); produced the serial killer thriller Tell No One (2006); produced the Backwoods Brutality film Frontier(s) (2007); produced the videogame adaptation Hitman (2007); produced the horror film The Secret (2007); produced the animated A Monster in Paris (2011); produced the orbiting prison film Lockout (2012); wrote/produced the English-language Banlieue 13 remake Brick Mansions (2014); and wrote/produced The Warriors Gate (2016) in which a videogamer is transported to Ancient China.