All Joan may be divided into three parts: She came, she conquered, she burned. But the French director Luc Besson adds a fourth part: According to him, she came, she conquered, she was visited by Dustin Hoffman in a wizard suit, and then she burned.
Oh, my. His movie is called "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," though in the movie the heroine is called by her French name "Jeanne" ("Junn"). That's only part of the confusion.
The other part is Joan's trial, an almost incomprehensible skein of events involving not only the duplicitous French nobility, the embittered English, the political elite of the now-vanished country of Burgundy (not yet a part of France and then, in 1431, an English ally), the professional French military, the starving peasantry plus a devious femme fatale played by Faye Dunaway with a blue vein pulsing out of her forehead like a road map to Crazyville. Poor Besson has no luck sorting all this out--after all, it took a hundred years of slaughter and mayhem to sort it out in real life--and the trial, as he delivers it, is a preposterous mess.
Besson is much better on the early Joan, Joan the Soldier. And she was a hell of a soldier. Women in combat? She was combat, Jack! She was GI Joan. As Besson tells the story, what she lacked in tactical know-how she made up for in sheer fury. Played by wafer-thin Milla Jovovich (also the star of Besson's last film, the overwrought "Fifth Element") at a screaming pitch of irritation throughout, she badgers the weak Dauphin (John Malkovich) into giving her command of the forces attempting to raise the siege of Orleans, then simply ignores all principles of warfare, gets on a horse and, like the best of all officers, yells "Follow me." And they follow, hacking limbs, severing heads, splattering teeth, unleashing lakes of blood.
You can see Besson's imagination engaged to its fullest at these moments. He loves the devices of medieval siege warfare, like catapults and caldrons of boiling water. He loves the thunderous chaos of close-quarter battle with instruments that cleave or crush. He loves the mud and squalor and sheer bloodiness of it all. He's always been a director who was better at action than drama--he first broke through in "La Femme Nikita," then went completely machine-gun nuts in "The Professional." And he loves warriors: His evocation of the French knights (led by "Femme Nikita's" Tcheky Karyo) is fabulous. They look like rock stars, insouciant and savage, wearing haircuts that either cost $300 on the East Side of New York or were done in three seconds by Theodoric of York, medieval barber, with a trowel, there being little difference between the two.
Otherwise, Besson is not much interested in Joan's metaphorical potential. He doesn't see her as a feminist hero. And although he credits her fierce nationalism, he also makes the legit point that the Dauphin, who was to become Charles VII after she won a slew of battles for him, was an unworthy ruler for whom to die. (In fact, it's really his shrewd mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon--Dunaway--who is being Charles VII; she must have found the portal into Charles's brain.) Nor does Besson see his heroine as a symbol of religious freedom, standing against the evils of an Inquisition that burned her on trumped-up heresy charges but really for winning battles against the English. Besson, working from a script by Andrew Birkin, seems more inclined to turn her into a figure more familiar to large audiences.
For under all this there lurks a theory. There's always a theory, isn't there? This one seems borrowed from that source of psychological acuity, "Seven Men From Now," starring Randolph Scott. She rode tall for revenge. Besson insists that Joan was traumatized by seeing the murder and rape (in that order) of her sister by an English knight. (The English, Anglophobes will be delighted to learn, are portrayed in this film as being slightly more maggoty than maggots themselves.) Surviving, her religious visions turned violent; in some manner she acquired a sword, which she became convinced came from God, and in her ravings began to acquire a following.
I can find no record in Marina Warner's "Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism" that Joan's sister was thus dispatched, though at one point her village, Domremy, was in fact burned. But his theory makes her more accessible to modern viewers, particularly as her kind of faith--whole and unbudgeable, sustaining her through battles, trials and ultimately the pain of the fire--has come to acquire the tincture of craziness in our secular age. We don't want a Joan who reminds us of David Koresh; we want one who reminds us of Clint Eastwood.
The most absurd modern device is Hoffman as "Conscience," a hallucination that appears in her cell each night, presumably representing the skeptical part of her brain. He seems more like a time-traveling shrink than anything else and continually probes her in search of guilt, anxiety, repressed memories and alternative versions of the psychic phenomenon she regarded as messages from God. Not only could these concepts not have existed until Herr Doktor Freud invented them in the Vienna of 1890, but they are boring and they get in the way of the trial itself, turning it to hash and denying Joan, whose words were recorded, her own steadfastness and eloquence.
Worse, Hoffman's character is a real party pooper! You sense that if he'd had his way, he'd have prescribed Prozac, which would have drowned out her voices in white noise. Almost certainly it would have prevented her date with the stake (horribly observed in the film to the bouncing ball of Hollywood's favorite witch-burning tune, "Carmina Burana"), but also probably left Orleans in English hands and probably an English crown on the French throne for the next 600 years. Think of what that would have cost the world: No haute cuisine but plenty of bangers and mash. Sacre bleu!
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (148 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for hackings, stabbings, squishings, squashings, crushings, rapings, the big burning and a poor guy who gets knocked into the side pocket by a giant cue ball. (You have to see that one to believe it.)
CAPTION: Milla Jovovich in "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," an exploration of the saint's inner demons.