Of all the adaptations of the Joan of Arc story produced since the dawn of cinema, Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc' ('The Passion of Joan of Arc') remains the standard bearer. Through Dreyer's artistry and the legendary performance by Maria Falconetti, the film achieves a still-harrowing level of intensity that no subsequent telling has been able to match. In 1999, French director Luc Besson took a stab at the material with 'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc' (known simply as 'Joan of Arc' in many territories) as a star vehicle for his then-wife Milla Jovovich, with whom he'd recently made the sci-fi spectacle 'The Fifth Element'. Unfortunately, as much as I've enjoyed their other less-serious movies, Luc Besson is no Carl Dreyer and Jovovich is certainly no Maria Falconetti.
Unlike the famous Dreyer film, which focuses on Jeanne's trial for heresy in 1431, 'The Messenger' attempts to tell the story of the Maid of Orléans as a sweeping epic. As we start, young Jeanne (Jane Valentine) survives a raid on her village of Domrémy by English soldiers (depicted as cartoonishly filthy, rotten-teethed monsters), who rape and murder her older sister right in front of the girl's eyes. Left nearly catatonic for a time, Jeanne becomes convinced that the ecstatic visions she's been experiencing are messages from God instructing her to drive the English out of France. A few years later, a now-teenaged Jeanne (Jovovich) petitions Charles VII, the Dauphin of France (John Malkovich), to let her lead an army to rescue Orléans from English attack. The girl sounds crazy and has no military experience whatsoever, but her passion and determination have made her a folk hero among the peasants and common rabble that the Dauphin needs to win over if he wishes to become king. Heeding counsel from his conniving, witch-like mother-in-law Yolande D'Aragon (Faye Dunaway), Charles grants Jeanne her army.
The other military commanders at Orléans doubt Jeanne's abilities, yet nonetheless treat this young girl with a level of politically-correct deference and respect wholly absurd for the time period. The ensuing battle is bloody and not exactly well-strategized, but Jeanne's irrational behavior is unpredictable enough to pull through a victory. At her moment of greatest success, the recently-coronated Charles turns his back on Jeanne, refusing her the manpower needed to reclaim Paris. With the upper hand after Orléans, the new king wishes to leverage his victory in political negotiations. He agrees to sacrifice the French heroine, allowing her to be captured by the English and put to trial for heresy, the outcome of which will secure her place in history.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 'The Messenger' is the way it treats Jeanne's religious revelations. The film remains entirely ambiguous as to whether she has really received messages from God or is merely mentally ill. A case can be made either way, and the movie plays out in a manner that doesn't insult either viewpoint. If you're inclined to believe that she was truly an agent of the Lord, that's exactly the impression the movie will leave. But if you're inclined to believe that she was a nut-job, it can be read that way as well.
Besson is a talented technical filmmaker. He infuses the movie with some striking imagery and choreographs several rousing battle sequences. Even so, it's clear that he's just not the right person to helm a self-important historical epic like this. His pop sensibilities are more suited to lighter fare. Although this is a French story made by French director, the film was produced in the English language for international box office considerations and has too many Hollywood overtones.
The casting is especially problematic. Jovovich is lovely to look at and is usually effective when headlining overpriced B-movies like 'The Fifth Element' or the 'Resident Evil' series, but is frankly pretty awful here. Besson has directed her to play Jeanne as an impulsive, hot-headed teenager. There's some validity to that approach, but it just doesn't work. Her insane squealing during the battle scenes is annoying and often comical. Her attempts to portray Jeanne's inner turmoil and fragile psyche are thwarted by amateurish tics. She looks like a model trying very hard to be a serious actress and failing. Which is basically the case.
The supporting cast doesn't help matters much. Malkovich hams it up as Charles VII. In his mid-40s during shooting, the actor seems to be trying to play young (the real Charles was in his 20s during these events). The results are kind of embarrassing. Dunaway looks out of place for reasons that are difficult to explain. She's just too Hollywood glamorous for the role. Dustin Hoffman pops in towards the end to play a character that may be Satan, may be God, or may be a figment of Jeanne's imagination. Mostly, he comes across as Dustin Hoffman stepping in for a day to read some overly-serious dialogue and cash a paycheck. The rest of the supporting players are a hodgepodge of competent to not-so-competent performances.
Besson means well with 'The Messenger', and there are some interesting ideas in the film, but overall it's not one of his stronger efforts. It's also far from the best movie made on this subject.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The disc contains only the 158-minute International Version of the movie which reflects an on-screen title of simply 'Joan of Arc'. The 148-minute American theatrical cut is not included.
This is the first Sony Blu-ray I've noticed that doesn't start with any annoying trailers before the main menu (the studio's usual Blu-ray promo is tucked away in the disc's supplement section). The animated menu is rather silly-looking, more suitable for a 'Monty Python' film than this particular movie.
Sony originally released 'The Messenger' on DVD back in 2000. Judging by the results, the new Blu-ray must be sourced from the same master as that disc. Sadly, the DVD in question dates from the time period when Sony applied Edge Enhancement to almost all of their video transfers. 'The Messenger' is smothered in the stuff. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (properly presented in the movie's 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio) looks pretty good, even impressive in close-up shots. However, medium and wide shots exhibit distracting and often thick edge ringing artifacts. Grain has a noisy, electronic texture. The image rarely looks film-like.
The contrast range also looks a little flat. Individual colors in the frame may otherwise seem accurate, but flesh tones are usually quite drab. The film has some nice photography by Besson's frequent collaborator Thierry Arbogast, but the Blu-ray is an over-processed mess.
In better news, the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is excellent. The audio mix is loud and crisp, with clear dialogue and sharp sound effects (especially all the clanging swords). Eric Serra's sweeping score features a rich use of violins and chanting. The surround soundstage is almost constantly active, creating an immersive atmosphere around the listening space. Low-end response doesn't extend to the deepest registers, but the tromping horses nonetheless make a satisfying impact. Clarity and fidelity are terrific across the board. Audio quality may be the disc's only saving grace.
For whatever reason, Sony has chosen to drop all of the bonus features found on the old DVD release of 'The Messenger'. The Blu-ray has nothing other than the studio's generic Blu-ray promo.
'The Messenger' is an interesting but very flawed historical epic. While the Blu-ray has great audio, its lousy video transfer and lack of bonus features are hugely disappointing. Sony is practically begging people not to buy it. Stick with a rental on this one.