Just before the end of the century, we got a historic epic everybody seems to have forgotten some twenty years later. It came on the wings of other highly successful movies like Braveheart and Elizabeth. However, the real story of how we got the movie before us is a bit more controversial. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is a historical epic directed by Luc Besson and starring his then-wife Milla Jovovich. We will be following Joan of Arc, a young peasant who, after receiving messages from god, quickly rose to the very top of the French army. Hence the title, The Messenger.
The development of the movie began in the early nineties. Kathryn Bigelow wanted to make a movie about Joan for quite some time. Her career skyrocketed after the success of not just Near Dark but also Point Break and Strange Days. Luc Besson was anxious to be the executive producer thinking that Milla would be playing Joan. Kathryn did not want her in a lead role as she had someone else in mind and the project fell apart. Moreover, Besson pulled all the funding and decided to make his own movie after a short court battle.
Kathryn went on to direct several war movies like K:19, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. So, with that out of the way, let’s see what we actually have here. Joan of Arc is an action-packed, emotional, and gripping epic willing to push the boundaries. It’s not afraid of graphic violence and accurate depictions of just how nasty life was back then. Besson focuses on the mental health of our heroine, showing us what led her to become such an intriguing person. Of course, as an atheist, I have to say that I don’t believe one bit that she was receiving messages directly from god.
Nor that she had supernatural powers or anything like that. And while you might think that this detracts from the story, I think that it actually adds to it. So, apart from all the action and court intrigue, we have the opportunity to examine this aspect as well. And if you’re a believer maybe all of this will hit even harder. Especially if you stick ’till the end. Unlike other historical epics, Joan of Arc is a relatively short movie clocking in at just two hours and a half hours. I have to say that I appreciate that decision, to make the movie more approachable to the average viewer.
Of course, you can count on all the things we’re already used to when it comes to this genre. Lavish sets, detailed costumes, and an extraordinary scale of battles. As I was watching this movie for the first time, one scene stuck with me. It’s one of those scenes you’ll hardly notice and it’s quite short but it left a lasting impact on me. It showed the sheer brutality and simplistic nature of war and human life. I’m talking about the scene when one of the soldiers smashes the head of another to collect his teeth. This simple act that I’m sure was happening in real life raises so many different questions. And yet also provides interesting answers.
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is a mostly historically accurate movie. Some events are entirely fictionalized like the attack on her village or how she finds her sword. And some are very much truthful. As we previously mentioned, Besson tried to focus on her frame of mind and the response from everyone else around her to that very specific frame of mind. We see her doubts and fears as she’s not some caricature of Joan but just a simple girl from a village. A simple girl from a village who talks to god and then proves her claims on the battlefield.
To make things even more bizarre, the real Joan of Arc was just 16 years old during all of this! Milla was 24 at the time of the production although she does look younger. She gave a balanced performance that I think was misinterpreted at that time because of her previous hit, The Fifth Element. The rest of the experienced cast was great as usual. We have John Malkovich, Vincent Cassel, and Dustin Hoffman among others. The cinematography was simply sublime and after more than 20 years, the movie still looks awesome.
There’s something about the French movies from this period that makes them uniquely visually appealing. The combination of crystal-clear focus and intense colors puts you right there, in the center of events. And the in-your-face camerawork was the final touch. Finally, if you’re looking for movies like The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc check out Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, and The Last Duel. Since the story is taking place in France, I would be remiss not to mention The Three Musketeers – D’Artagnan. The most recent rendition of the familiar novel was quite good and stylish.
Director: Luc Besson
Writers: Andrew Birkin, Luc Besson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Vincent Cassel, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Tchéky Karyo
Fun Facts: The filming took place in France and it lasted nine months, two times more than usual productions.