THERE’S a fine line between bravery and recklessness, and this point is made in more ways than one by The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. On the one hand, the Joan of this film is portrayed, by Milla Jovovich, as an impatient, emotionally overwrought girl who gets people to do what she wants by screaming at them a lot; the fact that her efforts are victorious, for a while, is basically just good luck.
On the other hand, there is director Luc Besson’s film itself. It takes no small amount of chutzpah to produce a $55 million mass market film that deliberately deconstructs one of the most beloved figures in the history of Christendom, especially at a time when audiences have demonstrated a taste for the unbridled romanticism of, say, Braveheart. But Besson’s efforts, as potentially courageous as they may be, are marred by his irresponsibly cavalier treatment of the historical evidence.
It’s a pity, since few films about the maid from Lorraine have had the courage to question her status as an untarnished hero of the faith. Certainly Joan had her darker side; had she lived to see the English driven out of France, her next goal might have been to stamp out the followers of Jan Hus, an early Reformer and a martyr himself.
And what are we to make of the voices Joan claimed to hear, which she identified with Saints Margaret, Catherine and Michael? Is it conceivable that the same Jesus who told his disciples to turn the other cheek in Roman-occupied Palestine would, through the saints, send French troops off to war against their fellow Christians in order to guarantee that one king and not another sat on the throne of France?
Besson apparently wants to demonstrate that Joan was deluded all along, but to get to that point, he carelessly reinvents the facts of her life. In the film, Joan first becomes convinced that God is telling her something when, as a young girl, she discovers a sword in a field and assumes it came from heaven; this epiphany is ultimately torn to shreds by a skeptical apparition (Dustin Hoffman) who appears to Joan when she is imprisoned by the English. “That was a sign,” she says. “No,” he replies dismissively, “that was a sword in a field.”
In reality, however, Joan’s sword was discovered in a shrine after Joan’s voices told her where it could be found, or so she said. Even if there was no real miracle there, the fact remains that the Joan of history was a woman of action who possessed an intriguing element of mystery, while the Joan of the film is a passive, superstitious child who ultimately becomes the victim of her own imagination. As with the character, so with the film; this messenger has no real message.