movie review by
David Ng


(© 1999 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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The Insider
Not the poly-accented Euro-bomb everyone expected, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is a highly caffeinated piece of movie candy that revels in camp and blaring overstatement. Who else but the director of The Fifth Element, one of the most outrageous spectacles in recent years, would attempt to film the life of a saint? Don't try to take any of it seriously for even the casual historian will be put off. This is a movie for teenagers and children who like to mix their VH1 with a little history. Those who slam The Messenger for being history dressed in pop-culture are missing the point. The Messenger is pop-culture elaborately costumed in French finery. Besson wants to rock us, not educate us, and along with a game cast and crew, he succeeds.

Like The Fifth Element, The Messenger is an assault on the senses. It runs directly at us, screaming, flailing its arms. As Jeanne, supermodel Milla Jovovich stalks the set like a rabid animal. She's impassioned all right, and Besson never lets us forget it. Like a rock video, images from her heavenly hallucinations are spliced into her breathless monologues as she explains to priests, noblemen, and eventually Charles the Dauphin, that indeed, she is God's messenger. God does not make an appearance, but we get tempestuous fields of barley and rolling, billowing clouds that would make Kenneth Branagh cover his eyes. There isn't a quiet scene in the entire movie.

Besson isn't scared of falling on his face. Anyone who would cast John Malkovich as the King of France must be willing to forgo some artistic respectability. There's a cheerfulness in the way Besson overlooks details and shoots straight for immediate payoff, confident that his ability to create a heavy metal joy ride that will drown out all logical inconsistencies. So, to no one's surprise, the screenplay is a mess. Written by Andrew Birkin and Besson, it depicts battles and confrontations that would have been better left off screen. By re-creating them, the movie diminishes their importance.

The Messenger might have worked better without a formal screenplay. Everyone knows the story anyway, so why not reconceive it from inside of Jeanne's mind as a feverish, structureless reverie? Besson and his crew are such undisciplined storytellers that the chronology hardly makes sense as it is. And quite often, the story feels like a constrictive force impeding them from realizing total visual anarchy. Besson needs a story with less gravity in which to exercise his fire power. The life of Jeanne seems to have intimidated him.

The supporting cast is much more willing to take risks, which makes for a more enjoyable though uneven experience. Jeanne's officers are played by distinguished French actors Tcheky Karyo, Pascal Greggory and Vincent Cassel. They play every scene as a joke, even when Jovovich is going for pure melodrama. Malkovich and Faye Dunaway are appropriately chilly as the future king and his mother-in-law. As the Bishop who must interrogate Jeanne, British actor Timothy West expertly combines arrogance and humility in a role that echoes Pontius Pilate.

And then there is Dustin Hoffman. He is on-screen for less than five minutes, but in those moments, the entire movie revolves around him. To explain his role would give away too much, but it is unlike anything else in the movie. He appears at random, delivers his few lines in a grave, even tone, and then disappears. His scenes are shot in close-ups as if to disembody him. He is a presence that infuses the entire movie with eerie omniscience.

As Jeanne, Milla Jovovich seems to be battling less against the English than against the director who wants to stuff her with meaningful one-liners. She tries hard to find her character in the screenplay, but ultimately, there is no Jeanne to be had. Jovovich discovered this early on and resigned herself to giving what Besson wanted her to give: a completely bestial, savage rendering of a somewhat dim-witted girl. In the final act, when Jeanne must face the inquisitors, most actresses turn up the holier-than-thou posturing. But Jovovich goes the other way completely. Her Jeanne goes insane, starts babbling to herself, and ultimately dies uncertain of her own visions.

The driving thrust of The Messenger is Besson's singular style, the way he edits turbulent scenes to create a vicious experience. In the service of a serious story, he comes off as preachy, but the sugary fun is still there, however diluted. If he had jettisoned some of the historical baggage, his joy ride of a movie would have rocked us a lot harder.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]