MILLA JOVOVICH'S face is dirty from battle and her vocal chords ragged with fatigue, as she yells at the circle of soldiers around her.
"I am the drum on which God is beating!" she exclaims. "And he's beating so hard my ears are going to burst!"
The movie is "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc." The time: the 15th century. Jovovich is Joan, the self-yclept "Maiden of Lorraine," a peasant girl who has heard God's call to save France from the English.
According to the voices, she is to lead her country's ragged army into battle and, after victory, witness the coronation of the dauphin (John Malkovich) over whatever the English and Burgundians have left of France.
God's drum keeps beating and the woman, frankly, is going bananas. Never was the case for psychotropic medication more acute than in Jovovich's performance.
"She's nuts," says one French soldier, watching this wild-eyed powergirl with the cool, 1990s haircut.
Welcome to Luc Besson's exclamation-point direction, in which everything is underlined, highlighted, amplified and stoked up. In the French director's big, heavy hands, the story of France's famous martyr -- burned by a conspiracy of English and French opponents at Rouen in 1431 -- becomes mere grist for battle spectacle and a never-ending series of over-the-top moments. Like its almost-demented heroine, "The Messenger" is unnervingly consumed with energy. It's as if Besson is afraid that -- at any moment -- financiers will gallop onto the set and close down the production for not being hyped up enough.
Speaking of financiers, Columbia pictures and the French company Gaumont have cast some big names to sell this gonzo history lesson to multiplex audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Tcheky-Karyo, best known for his role in Besson's "La Femme Nikita," fares the best as Dunois, a wise, seasoned French soldier doing his best to follow this headstrong girl. But most others are too distracting to take seriously.
Malkovich's first meeting with Joan -- in which she tells him of her visions and his destiny -- is, essentially, the American actor's opportunity to reprise his carefully cadenced deliveries and eccentric facial gestures -- including some eye rolling that would do an inbred village idiot proud. Entertaining but -- goofy.
Faye Dunaway is respectable as the manipulative Yolande of Aragon, but her face -- stretched tight under a double-domed hat -- suggests a sort of skinned locust. So it's hard to concentrate on what she's saying. Dustin Hoffman, as "The Conscience," tests Joan's divine claims with soul-crunching finality. But the Dustin-as-Death act feels contrived and overplayed.
"You saw what you wanted to see," he intones, as if he's carrying William Shatner's soul in a black bag.
And finally, take Joan's sacred visions -- please. Those divine messages from God, St. Catherine and others are practically music-video sequences full of manic camera maneuverings and sky-bending images. Do these phenomena come from the Supreme Being or the Special Effects department? Is Joan a servant of God or a pill-popping freak who watches too much MTV? But I suppose if you're watching this to see "Joan" to the max, such questions probably won't even matter.
THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC (R, 148 minutes) -- Contains gruesome bloodletting, big battle sequences, obscenity and one 15th-century "French" soldier saying "Whatever." Area theaters.