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Since many of his films feature dangerous young French women, perhaps it was unavoidable that Luc Besson would someday get around to Joan of Arc. But unlike the sexy professional killers and intergalactic bimbo goddesses of such previous Besson movies as La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, Jeanne d’Arc has a history, both actual—the 17-year-old peasant girl drove the British from Orleans in 1429 and was burned for it two years later—and on screen. In making The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the director challenges such masters as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, not to mention that recent miniseries. Given his pop sensibility, Besson has of course taken a different approach, but it’s not different enough to prevent the movie from often being redundant.
The 40-year-old director’s MTV-generation style aside, The Messenger resembles Jacques Rivette’s 1994 Joan the Maid, which was never released in the United States but was included in the National Gallery of Art’s 1997 Rivette retrospective. Both movies are more effective at conveying the physical than the spiritual aspect of Joan’s story, and both triumph where Joan did: at the battle of Orleans. Rivette’s film is both more austere and more forceful than Besson’s, in large part because his Joan is Sandrine Bonnaire. The Messenger stars singer-model Milla Jovovich, the intergalactic bimbo goddess of The Fifth Element and subsequently Besson’s wife. (Reportedly, the two have now split.) Jovovich has beauty and presence, but neither she nor the dialogue (by Besson and The Cement Garden director Andrew Birkin) belongs in the 15th century.
In the early scenes, Besson distinguishes his account of the story from all the other ones mostly with stylistic delirium. The camera whirls as the young Joan (Jane Valentine) rushes ecstatically through fields, the music (by longtime Besson associate Eric Serra) swells bombastically, a pack of black wolves symbolically gambol, a sword mysteriously appears, and clouds wheel frantically across the sky. It’s like The Sound of Music, The Sword in the Stone, and Nosferatu recombined for a Duran Duran video. Then the English attack, Joan’s sister is raped and murdered, and Joan is inspired to become a vigilante for God and France. (This section of the film could be titled Death Wish 1420.)
The mood becomes more sober still when Joan accepts her calling and rides to meet the Dauphin (John Malkovich), the man she will make France’s King Charles VII. Still, Malkovich is as smirky as ever, and Faye Dunaway (as the Dauphin’s adviser, Yolande of Aragon) is not exactly restrained. As a test, Joan is assigned to identify the Dauphin in a crowded room, and as she surveys the crowd, Besson cuts frantically while Serra sets the disorienting mood with Revolver-style backward-tape noises. Joan quickly identifies Charles, but tomorrow never knows.
Then it’s off to Orleans, for which Besson’s model seems to be Braveheart. The combat is fierce, bloody, close, and convincing. (The director himself donned armor so he could blend into the fray as he shot handheld close-ups; as many as a dozen larger cameras covered the wider shots.) As Joan preserves her purity by stopping her officers from swearing—although coming from Jovovich’s mouth Joan’s decrees sound like mere brattiness—the British prove God’s not on their side by saying “fuck” a lot. In the gore-soaked aftermath, however, the savior of Orleans tearfully wonders how she can reconcile her victory with the biblical injunction against murder.
Joan’s doubts are the focus of the movie’s most distinctive sequences, which come after she’s captured and imprisoned. Alone in her cell, she wrestles with her conscience, personified by none other than Dustin Hoffman, his voice electronically altered to sound unearthly. Rather than concentrate on her martyrdom or the church’s complicity in her death, the final scenes re-postulate Joan’s quest in existential terms. It’s a fittingly contemporary ending for a film that never pretends to have a medieval sensibility, but by then Besson’s stylistic eclecticism has already hopelessly muddied the tone. When The Messenger ends with a ballad sung by Israeli singer Noa, it almost seems that Besson has no goal other than to prove that a French director can spend money as indiscriminately as any Hollywood one.
The simple confluence of certain places and dates is ominous: France, 1915. Poland, 1939. India, 1947. The catastrophe of the partition that separated India from the new country of Pakistan is not as well-known in the West as some of the 20th century’s other bloodbaths, and Deepa Mehta’s fascinating but flawed Earth depicts the bodies of only a few of the
1 million victims, yet the film’s sense of foreboding is potent. Mehta hardly needs the portentous moment, early in the film, when 8-year-old Lenny (Maia Sethna) shatters a symbolic plate on the floor of her upscale home.
The Indian-born, Canada-based Mehta, who shocked traditional Indians with the lesbian romance of Fire, has a newfangled taste for controversy but an old-fashioned melodramatic style. The script of Earth—the second film in a planned elemental trilogy—is sometimes obvious and sentimental. The latter tendency is encouraged by the placement of an outspoken but largely uncomprehending child at the center of the story. Lenny is a Parsee, a descendent of the Zoroastrians who escaped Islamic persecution by escaping to India a millennium ago—which exempts her from the three-way sectarian battle between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. And Lenny’s parents are wealthy—which places another barrier between her and the turmoil outside the family compound. Yet she knows young men from all three of the major groups in pre-partition Lahore, because she goes to the park every day with her beautiful Hindu nanny, Shanta (Fire-starter Nandita Das), who attracts Muslim and Sikh, as well as Hindu, suitors.
Through Shanta, such Muslims as Hasan (Rahul Khanna) and Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan) have become pals with Hindus and Sikhs, while Lenny has been accepted as the men’s mascot. (She’s both an unusually assured child, and—because of the polio that makes her wear a leg brace—an object of sympathy.) As it becomes clear that the British will draw a line that puts Lahore in Pakistan, however, these friendships are frayed. The Parsees are chameleons, so they won’t be drawn into the conflict, Lenny’s mother tells her, even as her father brings home a gun. Meanwhile, Hindus begin to flee or convert, and Mehta stages a series of equal-opportunity terrors: Sikhs go on a rampage in a Muslim neighborhood, Muslims pump gasoline onto burning Hindu tenements, and a train full of Muslim corpses pulls in from Hindu-controlled territory.
Adapted from Bapsi Sidhwa’s semi-autobiographical novel Cracking India, the film mostly remains on a domestic scale. The period’s inevitable—and sometimes not even intentional—betrayals are finally reduced to those of Lenny, Shanta, Hasan, and Dil Navaz. (Lenny even uses her dolls to imitate one of the atrocities she witnessed, and she has a conversation with a young, newly orphaned Muslim refugee that veers in seconds from poignancy to bathos.) The riots, fires, and piles of bodies are just the backdrop—a defensible dramatic strategy that nonetheless seems inadequate to the cataclysm that Mehta intends to imply. Mani Rathnam’s Bombay, which managed to convey the horror of Hindu-Muslim violence within the framework of a traditional Indian movie musical, more effectively juxtaposed conventional family drama and unimaginable cruelty.
Sometimes it’s impossible to tell if Mehta’s instincts are too Indian or too Canadian: She indulges Bollywood conventions by providing a few discreet ditties—although not the full-blown song-and-dance numbers characteristic of Indian musicals—but there’s a blandness to her style that’s typical of Canadian films (a few directors excepted). The film has powerful moments and stunning images, the latter keyed to the Earth colors of orange and green by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, but its child’s-eye view unnecessarily limits the narrative. In fairness to Mehta, though, no one film could tell this story. If one could, it would be unbearable. CP