Burn, Babe, Burn

Gallop pol: Jovovich leading the charge in Luc Besson's The Messenger.Photo: Jack English

In The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, we first glimpse the fabled warrior maiden as a young peasant sprite gamboling through multicolored fields. She also spends quality time in the confession booth badgering the local priest with her piety – he can’t believe this little sprig has so much that she wants to be forgiven for. When the British invade Joan’s village, she watches her older sister first murdered and then raped by a soldier in need of a shave and some heavy orthodonture. Is it any surprise Joan will grow up to defeat the English at Orléans? The only surprise here is her transformation from Pippi Longstocking look-alike to her adolescent incarnation as runway model for the latest in fifteenth-century armorwear. As personified by Milla Jovovich, Joan is lanky and statuesque, with stylishly sheared hair and accented cheekbones. Her perfect teeth are whiter-than-white. When it comes to dentistry, the French win this Hundred Years’ War hands down.

Director Luc Besson, who never met a camera move he didn’t like, is perhaps best known in this country for La Femme Nikita, and there’s a lot of Nikita, who also looked like a supermodel, in this Joan. She’s a righteous assassin prone to hissy-fit outbursts of remorse. (Apparently, it never dawned on her that people fighting a war actually get slaughtered.) The timing for Besson’s take on Joan was inevitable: After George Bernard Shaw and Dreyer and Bresson (what a difference an “r” makes); after Jean Seberg and Maria Falconetti and Ingrid Bergman, the world is finally ready for Joan of Arc as the prototype of grrrl power (Joanie the Brit-slayer). Storming the British battlements at Orléans, she takes an arrow full in the chest and, retreating to safety, urges her warriors to press on. (This part of the spectacle could be called “Start the Revolution Without Me”). But then Joan plucks out the bloody thing and rejoins the fray. The battle scenes are in the Braveheart tradition: The score sounds like cannonballs trying to mate, while legions of armored and voluminously hairy bellowers clank to be free. In their verbal ripostes to the French, the British here are far from flowery. They respond to Joan’s entreaties to yield to the Kingdom of Heaven with a hearty, “Go fuck yourself!” Historical accuracy can be so limiting, n’est-ce pas?

Besson and his co-screenwriter Andrew Birkin are offering up Joan as mystic, maiden, martyr (choose any one or combination). The maiden part doesn’t work because of Joan’s high diva quotient; the martyr part is tempered by our desire, after listening to so much of Joan’s holier-than-thou yowling, to see her taste the flames and be done with it. The mystic part has potential, but Joan’s visions are about on the level of a Björk music video, and Besson introduces a character known to Joan as the Conscience, who tests her faith, or something, but is impossible to take seriously because he’s played by Dustin Hoffman in hooded robe and beard. Hoffman delivers his lines in a kind of dry, oracular patter; he could be Obi-Wan George Burns. I don’t think Hoffman has ever been sillier, though he’s not meant to be, exactly.

Contrast him with John Malkovich, playing Charles VII. With his dauphin’s haircut and ceremonial duds, this king is a fruity fanatic, and Malkovich gives him a gaudiness that’s the most entertaining thing in the movie. Watching the actor here, it occurred to me that the reason he was so perfectly cast in Being John Malkovich, where he spends some of his screen time inhabited by a woman, is that, as a performer, he projects in almost equal measure feyness and macho belligerence. With Malkovich, you may not always know what you’re getting, but it all adds up. He’s turned the omni-weirdness of his screen presence into a remarkably supple comic instrument capable of spanning centuries: Whether he’s appearing in the deadpan futurism of Being John Malkovich or the deadweight antics of The Messenger, Malkovich is oddly, absolutely right. He’s just about the only reason to pace yourself through this movie, but maybe not reason enough. I suspect its audiences will be ahead of the British in sounding the retreat.

Burn, Babe, Burn