Arc: The Messenger (1999)
There is much in Besson's telling of the events of Joan's life for which the director should be complimented. His portrayal of his protagonist is particularly intriguing. Several other films that have portrayed the life of Joan of Arc have presented the young woman as a placid embodiment of stereotyped holiness. Besson, however, strongly hints that Joan's visions, her conviction that she has a mission to fulfill, and her intense charisma are the products of mental illness rather than of some divine revelation.
While a biography of Joan in which these elements of her life are understood according to traditional interpretations could be involving, such an approach allows for little insight into the mind of the person so presented. By exposing her visions and determination as resulting from some psychological disorder, Besson, however, involves the viewer with the protagonist in a profound and affecting way. Instead of merely displaying a lifeless image of purity and goodness, the director delineates a fiery, troubled young woman who is living her life with a real intensity.
What is more, Besson's depiction of his heroine as unbalanced enables him to bring into his movie themes of human spirituality that a shallower approach could not have done. He thus repeatedly reveals to the moviegoer the power and appeal certain mentally ill persons can have and reminds that viewer that the perspectives of the modern age are not the only ones by which the world can be seen.
In fact, the ways people from many pre-modern societies looked at those conditions which we today recognize as being mental disorders were often radically different from our own understandings of such states. Historical accounts from virtually any part of the world disclose innumerable examples of individuals who, from the perspective of our own more empirical age, were afflicted by hallucinations or other delusions, but who were seen by their contemporaries not as deranged, but as holy, and who, as a result, achieved considerable spiritual or even political influence. Focusing just on Europe, the legends of various saints clearly demonstrate that many such persons suffered from severe psychological problems. The behaviors of individuals like Christina the Astonishing, Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avila, and countless others would today be recognized as resulting from mental disorders, but, in the lifetimes of these persons, their actions, visions, and the like were seen as indicative of the presence of some holiness.
Although Besson does not explore this different perception of mental illness in any real depth, he does give the viewer a glimpse of the effect a person suffering from such problems can have on others. He thus shows us how Joan's absolute conviction in her divinely ordained mission and her emotional intensity give her a vibrant magnetism and how her visions are understood by those she encounters not as delusional aberrations but as manifestations of some supernatural power.
Sadly, having immersed the moviegoer in Joan's acutely felt world, which he has inhabited with various apparitions born of her own mind, Besson, in the film's final act, undoes much of the effect he had achieved with such presentations. While Joan is languishing in her prison cell, the director introduces a tempter (Dustin Hoffman), who appears to her and questions the reality both of her visions and of her mission. Had Besson depicted this character as a manifestation of Joan's doubts, he could have involved the viewer even more thoroughly in the protagonist's existence. Unfortunately, the questions this individual asks are not merely far too sophisticated to have been worries troubling Joan but are even inappropriate for a person living in the medieval world revealed in the film. The moviegoer, being aware of such incongruities, is, as a consequence, made to wonder if this tempter is intended to be objectively real, as the devil perhaps. However he intended this character to be understood, by introducing him into the movie, Besson undermines much of his film's emotive impact. If Joan's tempter is meant to be an hallucination, the director is being inconsistent in his depiction of the heroine, and if the character is meant to be a demon risen up from hell, then the director negates all he has already implied about the nature of Joan's visions.
Regrettably, the presence of Hoffman's character is not the film's only distraction. There are also numerous overwrought moments, clumsy attempts to provide some sort of background to Joan's mental states, and a frequently atrocious screenplay. In fact, the modern dialogue with which the movie is peppered is, perhaps, its single most annoying element. Over and over again, one character or another is given some silly line that so reminds the viewer of popular expressions from the 1990s that he is torn out of the Fifteenth Century world in which he had been submerged and forced to disengage with the film. This approach, consequently, prevents the movie from being nearly as enthralling as it could have been.
What is more, much of the acting in the film is as modern as is the dialogue and, as a result, similarly ensures that the viewer is unable to lose himself in another age. Milla Jovovich, however, brings an edgy, unhinged intensity to her performance that can be truly captivating. By bringing out her character's mental illness, she exposes Joan's potent, mesmerizing charisma and so bewitches the viewer that he is readily brought under her spell. She really does acquit herself well.
Lastly, I should add that while Joan of Arc is never a beautiful movie, it is generally well filmed. The battle sequences are violent and horrific, but simultaneously thrilling. The castles and homes of the movie's characters are dark and claustrophobic, and their garments are dirty and ragged. The director, by making use of such depictions, is generally able to evoke another age and involve the viewer with its inhabitants.
While Joan of Arc is hardly a masterpiece, being burdened with various, often severe faults, it is reasonably well made and contains a number of intriguing elements. It is, as result, generally able to hold the viewer's interest.
Review by Keith Allen
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