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By Ron Wells | December 11, 1999

There were serious warning signs on this one. I was a fan of French director Luc Besson for a long time until he made “The Fifth Element”. He stated the movie was based on ideas he wrote in high school, and IT SHOWED. Spectacle had replaced the complexity of his earlier works, and when original director Kathryn Bigelow wouldn’t cast producer Besson’s “Fifth Element” star, then-current wife, and model Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc (martyr, savior of France, yada-yada-yada) in this new film, he replaced her. Besson is know for employing some morally hazy elements in his films, but upon viewing “The Messenger” for the first time, I was questioning another set of elements entirely. I didn’t understand the reasons why he chose to make this film, other than to produce some extra-gory kick-a*s battle scenes. I didn’t understand, that is, until the third and final act. Once the director revealed his grand design, most of the audience could breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, a large chunk of those present just didn’t seem to “get it.” First, let me state Jovovich redeems her then-husband’s judgment, and then some. Unlike 99% of model-slash-actresses, she displays intelligence, confidence, and more importantly, the physicality and feral intensity the role requires. My concerns were about the reenactment of Joan’s visions. To me, they felt ridiculous . . . but you know what? – That’s OKAY. Besson eventually communicates that these sentiments are not only accepted, but expected. The contradictions such as Joan’s rapport with God, her questionable crusade to instate a questionable monarch (John Malkovich), and the questionable differences between the French and their oppressors, the English, are not always explained, so much as embraced. The director borrows the subjective reality of David Lynch or Jodorowsky and tells most of the story as Joan sees it, NOT as it’s supposed to happen. Childhood trauma and religious fervor have re-shaped both her memories and perceptions. The director just gives us the end product and possible pieces of their origins. The film never indicates whether Joan was a prophet or just bipolar. That call is for the audience, provided they don’t take all they see at face value. We only learn the future saint was likely the catalyst France desperately needed to shake off its foreign occupants (until the next time they were overrun). Her weakness was in the limitations of her usefulness to the royal powers, a problem she did not recognize until it was too late. Besson, as in most of his films, makes some glaring mistakes. Dustin Hoffman doesn’t even attempt a period accent and sounds as anachronistic as De Niro did in “1900”. There’s a little difficulty initially in differentiating the warring parties when most of the invaders have British accents, and, uh . . . so do the French. There are many scenes that portray events occurring outside of Joan’s presence and knowledge. These greatly undermine the effectiveness of the more subjective scenes taken from the martyr’s memory. Let’s throw in a bunch of points for his successes though. Where we may have expected a saint to be canonized, we receive ambiguity. This version of the story is not about a super-hero. It’s an exploration of her exploitation (also of the nation’s lower classes) by religion and the ruling class. The church, amazingly, gets off easy. The aristocracy is portrayed as scornful and ungrateful to the peasants both before and after they are needed to reclaim the lands of the ruling class. Hey, they WERE the easy target. Luc Besson has made an adult film with adult ambiguities and relationships. It’s not another mindless adventure film. I think it could find an audience in the U.S. I would only hope it finds one with some adult analytical skills, but I wouldn’t count it, considering how many times I’ve had to explain “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and “Lost Highway”. This film, as most things that involve religion, is better understood if you learn not to take everything so literally.

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