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JOAN OF ARC: THE MESSENGER

★★★

A SAINT OR INSANE?

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By Daniel Lammin
21st June 2015
After hitting pop culture and cinematic gold together with ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997), acclaimed French director Luc Besson and star Milla Jovovich reunited for an even more ambitious project, taking on one of the most mysterious and controversial figures in history - an uneducated peasant girl who led France to victory against the English in the 1400s, claiming she was a messenger from God. Jean d’Arc had been brought to the screen before, most notably in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s silent masterpiece ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928), but what Besson mounted in 1999 was a mighty production, with a major international cast and enormous resources at his disposal. The result, deeply flawed yet deeply haunting, was ‘Joan of Arc: The Messenger’, one of the strangest works of epic cinema.

The film charts the rise of Jean (Milla Jovovich), from early childhood in rural France to her arrival at the court of Charles VII, the Dauphin of France (John Malkovich). With France under the power of the English, Jean promises Charles that she will return the kingdom to her, even though she has no military training or education. All she carries is a message, that she has been sent by God himself to free France from the clutches of the English.

Rather than taking the more subtle approach of filmmakers before him, Besson dispenses with subtlety and crafts an enormous, highly ambitious production, that somehow manages to balance the complex material and period setting with his distinctive modern sensibilities. The cinematography is frenzied, the editing is erratic and the performances are pitched to the heavens. This doesn’t always work; the film occasionally too strange and brutal and melodramatic for its own good, but what ultimately saves it is Besson’s radical approach to Jean herself. Rather than totally accepting her divinity, the film presents Jean as a deeply troubled young woman. A question resides over ‘The Messenger’ - was Jean d’Arc truly a messenger from God sent on a diving mission to save France, or a deeply disturbed young woman suffering from staggering delusions and taken advantage of by the men of power around her? History offers no solution, and neither does Besson, choosing instead to offer a fractured and frantic portrait of the saint. In a film full of vaulting ambition, this is the most ambitious stroke of all, and your enjoyment of the film rests on your ability to buy its fractured nature. Benson contrasts the enormous battle scenes with sudden flashes of unnerving and disturbing images bourn from Jean’s troubled mind, much of it based around warped religious iconography. The result is a kind of unrelenting, confusing fever dream that spins you around and spits you out. It’s not difficult to walk away from ‘The Messenger’ impressed, but it’s also not entirely satisfying. By going for something bold and uncompromising, ‘The Messenger’ might just be too ambitious for its own good.

'JOAN OF ARC: THE MESSENGER' TRAILER

Milla Jovovich is also hard to assess in the film. Her performance is either needlessly ridiculous or secretly genius, though I suspect it’s a bit of both. Her Jean is completely unhinged, often resorting to tantrums and screaming like a child. It’s often irritating and yet might be very intelligent, but because the film around her is just as confused tonally, it’s hard to tell where she falls. She does seem a tad overwhelmed by the scale of the film, especially when compared to her co-stars, which include Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy West, all of whom seem much more at ease with Besson’s tone. Hoffman is worth mentioning in particular for his unusual role in the film, a kind of psychological confessor speaking within Jean’s mind, which adds to the central question of whether she is touched by God or utterly insane.

500 years after she was executed for heresy at the age of nineteen, Jean d’Arc was canonised and proclaimed a saint. She is one of the most enigmatic and mysterious figures in history, guaranteed to be endlessly fascinating because she is impossible to understand. While Luc Besson’s epic and radical portrait of her doesn’t come anywhere near the greatness of other adaptations, and is way too ambitious for its own good, he ignites some of the most fundamental questions about her. In his hands, Jean becomes not only immensely brave and deeply tragic, but also deeply disturbing. I certainly don’t think this is a classic worth reassessing, but there is definitely something about ‘Joan of Arc: The Messenger’ that’s hard to shake off.

While Luc Besson’s epic and radical portraitdoesn’t come anywhere near the greatness of other adaptations, he ignites some of the most fundamental questions about her.

PICTURE & SOUND
Madman present ‘The Messenger’ on Blu-ray with an impressive 1080p 2.35:1 transfer that barely betrays the film’s age. I suspect this transfer is taken from a French release, as the opening and closing credits are in French. Detail is wonderful throughout with a healthy amount of grain, and the subdued colours look gorgeous in high definition. I can’t see any real problems with the restoration, which makes me suspect this is a more recent transfer than the 2008 U.S. and UK releases. We also get a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (rather than the TrueHD 5.1 on the 2008 releases), which is rich and full of power. ‘The Messenger’ has a very busy sonic landscape, especially when related to Jean’s fractured psyche, and that comes across beautifully on this track, which balances its sound design with the dialogue.

SPECIAL FEATURES
There are no special features included on this disc. We are one of the last countries to get ‘The Messenger’ on Blu-ray though, and as far as I can tell none previously have included any features, so this is hardly a surprise.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 24/06/2015
RUN TIME: 2h 28m
CAST: Milla Jovovich
John Malkovich
Faye Dunaway
Dustin Hoffman
Timothy West
Vincent Cassell
DIRECTOR: Luc Besson
WRITERS: Luc Besson
Andrew Birkin
PRODUCERS: Luc Besson
Patrice Ledoux
SCORE: Eric Serra
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