Joan of Arc has inspired innumerable writers since her death more than 500 years ago, from Voltaire to George Bernard Shaw. And since the 1916 "Joan the Woman," and Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928), she has also become a perennial subject for film directors.
What is this endless fascination with the teenage French peasant who liberated the French from English occupation five centuries ago? Is it her divinely inspired heroism? The empowerment of a woman in a patriarchal world? Or could it be the enticing prospect of a young woman going up in flames?
As Luc Besson's new film, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" makes clear, it is all of those things, but the burning is especially crucial. This much is also clear: From the very casting of Joan to the way filmmakers (chiefly male) have portrayed her, the treatment of Joan of Arc is always bizarre, inappropriate and just plain off the mark.
Of course, rendering the life of someone who lived centuries ago is part historical record and part dramaturgical guesswork. But Joan of Domremy, who was also known as Joan the Maid, Saint Joan and the Maid of Orleans, would surely roll over in her grave at the screen stories that bear her name. That is, if she hadn't been burned to ashes and thrown into the Seine in 1431.
The best regarded on the subject of Joan remain Dreyer's "Passion" and Robert Bresson's 1962 "The Trial of Joan of Arc." But in these more secular times, Bresson's film--an austere, faithful reiteration of the protracted trial that resulted in her death sentence--feels dramatically stifling. The director was entirely too concerned with Joan's spirituality. And in Dreyer's classic, Maria Falconetti--who plays Joan--seems to equate religious rapture with intense eyelid movements and going crosseyed. On one level, the effect is mesmerizing. On another, you don't know whether to laugh at her funny expressions.
Neither Besson's "The Messenger," which opens Friday, nor the meandering "Joan of Arc" television miniseries that aired last spring will contribute much to Joan's legacy.
In the CBS made-for-TV production, Leelee Sobieski played Joan as a sort of class valedictorian whose poise and sophistication smack more of a New England college background than a childhood spent in a superstitious French village. This Joan was more likely to come up with a position paper on France's geopolitical situation than get on her knees and ask for God's guidance.
As for Besson's movie, it's Hollywood hyperbole as usual. The French director empowers his Joan (Milla Jovovich) like a sci-fi superhero. The supposedly simple, illiterate peasant is a bionic wonder, a rural Femme Nikita who plucks arrows from her breast, leaps on horseback over gut-piercing wooden stakes and practically intimidates the English out of Orleans. Was Joan really all about athleticism, self-confidence and Power Ranger spark? And did she really have a hairdo that's more MTV than Middle Ages?
Besson, like most directors, revels in Joan's burning. Like her predecessors--from Jean Seberg to Ingrid Bergman (in Victor Fleming's 1948 "Joan of Arc")--Jovovich's death amounts to a ravishment of youth and beauty, with an emphasis on female gasping and panting. Of course, Joan's death scene is supposed to be about religious transformation, humankind's perpetual treachery, the triumph of spirit over body, etc. But there's something about that fire that titillates every filmmaker. Marinate Joan in righteousness, innocence and vigor. Baste her with religious conviction. Sprinkle her with sensibility and vision. The finer her qualities, and the closer she is to God, the better she'll burn.
Is this why we watch so many films about Joan of Arc?
As the executioner applies that burning brand to start the blaze, are we rooting for Joan to escape? Do we hope against hope that forces loyal to her beloved king will invade the Rouen marketplace and whisk her away? We don't, because her death is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps we are just a modern version of a medieval mob come to watch the flames lick her body. It isn't every day you see a young, attractive actress going up in flames.
In Mark Rappaport's entertaining docudrama "From the Journals of Jean Seberg," Mary Beth Hurt (playing the late Seberg and quoting from fictional diaries) suggests the reason for people's fascination: "The promise of the spectacle of a woman being burned at the stake . . . It's horrifying and you want to see more. Throw another Joan on the barbie."
In 1957 director Otto Preminger launched a highly publicized search for an unknown actress to play the lead in his adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan."
Then an eager 17-year-old from Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg beat an estimated 18,000 applicants for the part. But it was clear, says Hurt-as-Seberg, the actress was utterly out of her depth as an actress. Although Preminger wanted someone young enough to play Joan, the part called for a sophistication beyond Seberg's abilities. To watch her in that movie is to behold Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" taking the yellow brick road to Orleans.
"Who on Earth would follow this drum majorette into battle?" says Hurt.
Seberg was good kindling. During the filming of the climactic scene, an uncontrolled surge of fire flared around her, causing her to scream and raise her arms protectively to her face. Preminger liked the realness of her reaction and kept it in the movie. What you see in that scene is the genuine terror of a woman facing the flames. The incident prompted a Life magazine article headlined "St. Joan Really Burns."
There can be no martyrdom without a fatalistic progression of events--each one leading inexorably into the other. In these movies, Joan's story almost always starts at age 13, when she encounters the celestial voices of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. These voices tell her to don men's clothing, head the French army and facilitate the coronation of Crown Prince Charles.
In "The Messenger," Besson panders to modern audiences by creating special effects to represent those celestial beings. This leaves no doubt about the veracity of her visions--a shortcoming when it comes to the trial. Without such doubt, there isn't much of a dramatic contest. Of course, Joan's right. Of course, the questioners are wrong. How would the real Joan feel about this? After all, she received visions from God, not George Lucas.
After the visions, Joan movies always continue with our heroine meeting with the dauphin--who is almost always portrayed as a selfish idiot. After Joan impresses him with her devotion and her prophesies--including his impending rule over France--he commissions her to vanquish the English. Her fate is set. Promoted to lead men, she'll have to watch her back all the way.
Then comes the extended military section: Joan's astounding military successes at Orleans and along the Loire, followed by the coronation at Rheims. This is Joan's time to live it up; it's all doom and gloom from there. The moment Charles VII is king, Joan's days are numbered.
Charles becomes reluctant to keep fighting and he loses enthusiasm for Joan. When the Burgundians capture her at the fortress town of Compiegne, he does nothing to help. Her enemies sell her to the English, who appoint Bishop Cauchon to try her for heresy, witchcraft and other transgressions.
It is almost time for the fire. But wait. Before that, it's vital to savor the 1430 trial, in which Cauchon, as well as theologians and doctors of the University of Paris, interrogates Joan for months on subjects ranging from her visions to her reasons for wearing--and continuing to wear--men's clothing.
This patriarchal ganging-up, fanned by Joan's eloquent denials, sets up the conflagration to come. When a victim puts up a struggle, her death is much more satisfying--dramatically speaking, of course.
When the Lord's archangel appeared before Joan, "Was he naked?" the interrogators ask Falconetti in Dreyer's "Passion."
"Did he appear to you as a naked man?" the bishop asks Seberg in "Joan."
If the questions were purely spiritual in 1430, they are anything but that in the movies.
The Joan movie genre presents its heroine's dalliances as a man are almost as diabolical as her claims of religious rapture. This condemnation not only validates her execution for the English. In a vicarious way, it does the same for us. After all, there is nothing we can do to help her, except pause respectfully before we crunch our popcorn.