Luc Besson, creator of alternative worlds in such films as "La Femme Nikita," "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element," has at age 40 turned to the legendary tale of the medieval French heroine Joan of Arc in his new movie, "The Messenger." In a discussion at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., the mercurial, often-shy director--with his trademark beard and pudgy cheeks, dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and motorcycle boots--talked with Post reporter Sharon Waxman about what propelled him into the past in search of a new interpretation of the oft-told religious tale.

Q: After making so many films in futuristic worlds--"Nikita" and "The Fifth Element," for example--what drew you to exploring the past?

A: To me it seems logical. I was always interested in human behavior, in what one can learn from what a hero teaches. The most interesting element is weakness; you understand a hero through their weakness.

Q: But why Joan of Arc?

A: I was working on another film, but I set it aside. I really thought Milla [Jovovich, Besson's now-estranged wife] was too perfect for this role. Not necessarily for me to direct. I didn't have an angle to take it from, but in reading about her I became attached to little Joan. . . . I had understood she was a heroine, but I learned she was a young girl, only 19, a peasant, uneducated. I wanted to understand how--emotionally--she went through this. You know, I didn't want to tell the story of Saint Joan, I wanted to tell the story of little Joan, about how 500 years later she can still teach us about ourselves.

Q: What does she teach us?

A: About the relationship we have with ourselves. Our relationship to our flaws. There is the first image in the film when the sword is lying next to her in the field. And later her conscience asks her, "Are you sure that was a sign from God? How many other ways could that sword have gotten there? You saw what you wanted to see." It brings us back to our own uncertainty and our own faith.

Q: The film does not judge Joan definitively, but you certainly seem to see her as a tarnished heroine.

A: There is a commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." So she finds it hard to believe when she finds her own hands full of blood, and not see a contradiction in her own self. She has herself to answer to.

Q: Are you a believer?

A: In what? People ask me if I believe, I say, "In who?" There are 37 Egyptian gods, there are Inca gods, Buddhist gods. In medieval times we burned alive someone who said the Earth was round. People of the church, believing they were embodying the word of Christ, did this, which for me is against what the texts say. I love the texts. I read the Bible, the Koran--these are good tools to help people conduct themselves. I was not raised Catholic, but I'm for it. It's a good idea. But I can't bear the idea of how people use the texts and distort them for economic or personal reasons.

Q: Many critics have noted the film's graphic violence. Why did you find it necessary to portray this?

A: Believe me, the violence of the film is 20 percent of what really was. There were things in the documents that I couldn't even read. But this horror that Joan was seeing, I needed to show it, to denounce it. Whatever speech she'd make, whatever song, prayer before battle, the result is a field filled with cadavers. It's cold, and everyone's crying, on both sides. It's always like that. And we continue.

Q: Do you feel differently about religion after having made this film?

A: I think I feel about the same: I'm for religion if it helps people live. I'm against a religion that pushes people to kill each other.

Q: Are you afraid "The Messenger" might disappoint your action-adventure fans, who expect different sorts of films from you?

A: The first thing to know is that I'm unpredictable. Journalists always need to understand things on the big scale; I spend my time running away from that. To me that's the antithesis of the artist. I think "The Messenger" is a point, like on a big paper. I do a point here, a point there. Journalists always try to draw lines between them and see geometric shapes. I think that in 10 years you'll need to stand back and see if the points form an image.