Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (EIWA).
I first saw The Messenger in Incheon, South Korea, in one of the new stadium-like modern theaters, with hot buttered squid and a chocolate dipped chocolate ice-cream cone. The previous lovely couple of hours were spent reading in wall.wall, an elegant coffee shop on the same floor, with a cappuccino and a row of alert black-tie staff running to the table if I even looked up. I remember this so vividly, in part, since some things change us just because we see them. We are unable to forget; we remember where and when. For some, it was Schindler’s List. This film is like that.
I saw it twice in that theatre, the second time trying to dispel the shock and put it somewhere safe within. It didn’t work. Art isn’t always a safe bedfellow. Since it became available on DVD, I have avoided The Messenger even as I am repeatedly drawn to it. I both hate and love the film. It’s a violent love affair.
One comes to expect a rising scale of greatness from Luc Besson since his extraordinary films La Femme Nikita (the original French version), and Leon: The Professional (the international version). The Messenger is even more powerful, but it has to be handled delicately, like a ticking bomb in the heart. A long walk or a good cry afterward is essential.
The plot concerns Jean d’Arc — heroine, martyr, and arguably the saviour of France. We all know the story: Jean is a young girl of 19 who leads a nation to victory against the English in 1430. She is later betrayed, burned at the stake, and half a millenia later she is declared a martyr and a saint by the Church of Rome. Writers Andrew Burjub and Luc Besson offer us a Jean of Arc both beautiful and terrible, a truth about war that leaves the viewer quivering, and a story of Jean’s religious experience that is an emotional tempest.
One loves Jean immediately as a girl of eight (Jane Valentine II). She isn’t burdened with the social inhibition that separates vision from other “reality”. Her religious experience and her visions are tightly knit to the rest of her life. She is one of those integrated souls that history records either as a luminary or as quite mad. “It’s… wonderful!” she exclaims, running out of the confessional. Joan will run miles to a church, even in a storm. She goes to confession two or three times a day and mass every day. She doesn’t like to wait, and seeks the most direct obedience to God’s will, like an arrow’s flight. When laying seige to Orleans, she says of her enemy, “He’s on the other side… Who gave the order for me to be brought to this side of the river?” In doing God’s will, she believes “Sooner is better than later.” She writes letters to the King of England, warning the English to go home, but she doesn’t allow swearing. I’d follow her myself. If anyone could storm the gates of hell, it is this Jean.
The Messenger is laden with symbolism and omens. Jean is a scythe against the wheat of the enemy. The ravens… the wolves… Even seeing it again, for the 3rd time, there were new subtleties. It’s a brilliant piece of direction. The bell in the first few minutes of the film is intoning Jean’s name. The symbolism is a wonderful directorial treatment of the intersection between the visionary and the mundane. The two aspects of reality are wed, for instance, in Jean’s being surrounded by wolves in a vision and, startled aware, they are real wolves, driven out of the forest by the attacking English. It reminds me of the similar folklorish imagery in Tori Amos’ video Strange Little Girl, presaging here not only the coming of the English, but also the ecclesiastical and political wolves who surround and snap at her during her trial, and the pragmatic wolves in her own homeland who betray her. Filmed in the region of Bruntal (Czech Republic), the scenery yields the haunting, dreamlike, singularly-powerful fairytale image of The Forest for just such a Little Red Riding Hood scene.
The symbolism is sometimes very black. Foreboding Jean’s rise, she sees her sister raped and murdered at the same time in a terrible event of necrophilia. When the sister resists: “Oh! A woman with a sword!” The sister replies, “If that’s God’s will, then so be it!” Jean has only just been holding her found sword aloft, piercing the sky like a sharpened cross, and she will become a sword against the invader.
The Messenger is among the most gruesome of films — a constant, violent brutalizing of the senses. Not just in some places… It is horribly, graphically laden with gore from start to finish. It breaks one’s heart — shatters it in so many places like the shattered bodies all over the set. It is as if the director is saying, “If you want the story. I’m going to tell all of it. Do you really want that?” Or, in Jean’s words, “I’ve seen enough blood. But if you want more, I can’t stop you.” Even the blood and moisture on the camera lens, odd moments the director decides to leave in, can’t compare to the hacked limbs, the bashed brains, and the moment we realize that the French soldiers take captives in order, for instance, to bash out and use their teeth:
Jean: What are you doing?
Soldier: Nothing, I’m just taking his teeth.Soldier: Well, why not? He has good teeth.
Jean: Because you can’t.
Soldier: What about all this? (the carnage on the battlefield)
Jean: That’s different. I mean… We were fighting for a cause.
Soldier: Not me. He is my prisoner. I can take his teeth if I want to.
[she buys the prisoner]
Captain: Bravo. And what about all the other prisoners? Do we let them go too?
Jean: I don’t know. Maybe.
The dialogue in general is fantastic. One is never bored with needless jeers, or vacuous language. When Jean is hacking off her tresses, and patient but firm Aulon exclaims “Calm down, Jean!” she replies, “I am calm! It’s God’s that’s angry.” Another line seemed right out of The Matrix, and made me chuckle in recognition, “Tomorrow she’ll be as right as rain. You’ll see.” Of course on the morrow, an angry, grieving Jean of eight is still sitting on the edge of her bed, and her morning hullo is “I want to see a priest.”
Faith is the central issue explored by The Messenger, and the religious aspects of the film are amazing and crushing. There are rich, lovely scenes: A hooded Jean with her hooded escort (a tribute to wardrobe), galloping at a shocking speed to get an army of the Dauphin! There is immensely insightful dialogue:
Aulon: How do you know these voices aren’t just really you?
Jean: Well they are me. That’s how God speaks to me… You could hear them, if you listen hard enough.
There are terrible, repulsive scenes: child Jean bursting into an empty church, taking the reserve sacrament without a priest, and wine covers her chin and mouth like blood while she demands, “I want to be at one with you. NOW!”
There is also some unnecessary cynical mockery and anti-clerical overtone: A vial of The Holy Oil of Clovis, which is traditionally used to annoint the king, appears to be empty. Yolande D’Aragon fixes the problem by pouring in a little of some oil she happens to have along. “What are you doing?” asks the shocked Bishop. “Performing a miracle,” she replies. Of course the annointing occurs on schedule. One is prepared to snigger and wink snidely, but what’s ironic is that (as with holy water) any oil filling the container sanctified by holy oil becomes holy oil. Those things are refilled all the time! The joke depends on a certain sacramental ignorance and anti-Catholic prejudice. There are enough real difficulties to explore; refilling the holy oil is just a snarky non sequitur that detracts from the genuine questions the film raises.
But nothing compares to the violence of The Conscience, visiting Jean in her imprisonment, reducing all her visions and revelations to natural events, and bringing out the film’s overall theme as an offered critique of the intersection of war and faith. My heart was torn apart by seeing her conscience brutalize her consciousness:
Your visions. They’re going to come and visit you in here? I’d like to see that. Do you mind if I stay on the side here? I won’t bother you… They won’t come anyway… Why would they? …God asked you to do something? …You mean God said, “I need you Jean?” …Signs? What signs? …Wind. …Ringing clouds. …The dance. …No, that was a sword in a field …No, that was a sword in a field. …True. Every event has an infinite number of causes, so why pick one rather than another? Yet from an infinite number of possibilities, you had to pick this one (heaven’s parting, sword falling) …You didn’t see what was, Jean, you saw what you wanted to see.
The Conscience is so demoralizing that one wants to jump through the screen and deliver her back to her ecstacy. At one point Jean accuses him of being evil. His reply:
Who are you to even think you can know the difference between good and evil. Are you God? …How could you possibly imagine that God, the creator of heaven and earth, the source of all life, could possibly need you? …You don’t think he’s big enough to deliver his own messages?
As Jean prays to her ‘voices’, “Don’t abandon me,” we realize: Who hasn’t, in any faith, experienced what Jean is experiencing? The doubt, the wonder if she’s been abandoned, the question of whether it’s truly ‘real’, the question of whether what appears good is evil… But the writers are also making another religious argument. They are asking whether, if there is a God, he would ever require a human representative, let alone mass violence. The film doesn’t attack the possibility of ‘God’: “You know what you just signed? You just signed away his existence. For you, he’s a lie, an illusion. In the end it was you who abandoned him.” Instead, it is challenging the basic Christian premise of a synergy between God and man, of exactly the kind of role Jean was playing. Until Jean rejects her role as a ‘Messenger,’ and confesses her merely human motivations — “all the things that people believe they are allowed to be when they are fighting for a cause” — she cannot be redeemed.
My heart had so broken by the inevitable end that I cried for Jean, and still do when I see this film. I was crying for me too. I’ve been in those flames.
The film has as many illuminating moments as it does horrific ones. The accurate portrayal of the purpose, if not always the practice, of an ecclesiastical court, is something one doesn’t generally find in movies:
We are all men of faith, and we shall earnest strive for the salvation of your body, and your soul. We do this in the name of our Holy Mother Church who never closes her arms to those who would return to her… if your persist in refusing our help, we will have no choice but to abandon you to the secular powers…
Casting and acting are truly impressive. Faye Dunaway as Yolande D’Aragon, Mother in Law of the Dauphin, gives a taut performance as a pragmatic atheist – unless it suits her to appear otherwise. Her veined, diabolical face lends an undead kind of quality, capped by a wonderful moment of strength and irreverence as she tosses a book of prophesy as though it were last year’s scullcap. Dunaway always brings a sense of life to her roles, and this one is no exception. Aulon (fantastically acted by Desmond Harrington) will probably turn heads. He is replete with honor, intelligence, learning, patience, and sensitivity, and he’ll follow a woman if he believes in her cause. What’s more, he never falters in convincing the viewer that he’s really like that, so he’s the perfect companion for Jean.
John Malkovich, the “gentle Dauphin” (Charles VII), gives a performance dry as bones, not unsimilar to his primary role in Man in the Iron Mask. The difficulty for this actor seems to be in maintaining his trademark voice evenly with an appearance of emotional depth. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as The Conscience, Jean’s invisible inquisitor. This role provides every opportunity for a tone and expression of pedantry and elaborate condescension, but Hoffman resists any such impulse, and the result is a truly formidable detachment. He has the most powerful role in the film. Similarly, Milla Jovovich (Jean) can be tested by how she handles visionary ecstacy. In this case, it is neither Carrie-dramatic nor underplayed. She is comical, pious, terrified, and sensual (there’s a scene where the director comments on the intersection of religious and sexual ecstacy, as a kneeling Jean hugs the Dauphin) with equally convincing demeanour.
Never before, either, have there been in one film so many brilliant choices for the minor cast members. Tchéky Karyo, Pascal Greggory, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Vincent Cassel, and a score of others gave amazing performances, full of enthusiastic dramatic life and serious professionalism. Sit for the credits on this one.
Wardrobe is amazing. The fifteenth century is recreated vividly “in technicolor”, so to speak, with not a single sloppily-sewn draping even in the battle scenes. There’s a precision that marks not only a good budget but an alert director. The special effects are exquisite… sophisticated: Visions look like visions, without too psychedelic a rotation of the reality dial. Music by Eric Serra is fine — not thrilling, but not intrusive either.
I found the International Version of Luc Besson’s The Messenger looking up at me from the discount racks for under $10 at Walmart. Its undeserved exile there is a testament to its difficulty and traumatizing qualities, but is also a boon to hunters of screen gems.
For really fascinating documents from her life and trial, check The Joan of Arc Online Archive and look at the trial transcripts. For background, there are encyclopaedic sources on The Holy Oil of Clovis,the reserve sacrament, and the ecclesiastical court.