Joan of Arc: The Messenger

dir. luc besson
dop. thierry arbogast
st. milla jovovich, john malkovich, faye dunaway, dustin hoffman

It's impossible to write seriously about crappy Hollywood films. They only stand up to scrutiny in that most furious of forums, the post-movie discussion, so here's one we prepared earlier, an honest-to-god transcript of a conversation between your faithful critic Adam Rivett (A), partner in crime Eugene Chew (E) and his faithful sidekick Melisa (M). Poor expression of ideas and shoddy sentence construction need not be pointed out, as they are inescapably tied to the fact that taping your thoughts for future use leads to occasional flights of silliness and dives into self-consciousness. An approach which is frankly appropriate for Besson's latest blockbuster.

(Conversation begins as soon as we leave the cinema. After about a minute I remember to start recording.)

A: In terms of battle scenes, I thought Braveheart was much more effective.

E: You thought so? I thought the battle scenes were the best part of this movie. The whole period drama was really well done, in terms of the costumes and production design.

A: Yeah but that's easy to do really. There are thousands of talented people out there with a knowledge of design and costumes. The hard part is shaping it all into a good film, and that's where Besson fails nearly every time. I had my hopes up after The Professional but I must say that after this and The Fifth Element, it's not looking good. What did you think Melisa?

M: I thought it took too long to build-up, the plot was so disjointed I can only remember it in fragments. The clever bits aren't played out well though I liked the actor who played God in the prison... what's his name? He had the best lines ... one of the few thought-provoking characters in the film.

A: Dustin Hoffman. You liked him? Because of the voice? That's all computers, that evil boom he had.

M: There s a certain depth to it, especially when he goes "aaaAAhhh!" His facial movements are very expressive. I like his acting - it's very understated.

A: Compared to everyone else in the film...very, very, very understated. This is Besson's problem in one - every scene in the first hour is loud and pompous enough to be the final scene in any other movie. It's overblown ... like a big 2 1/2 hour cumshot.

Although when you think about it, this film is actually quite ambitious. Right up front it gives you a whole batch of history that a lot of people won't know anything about, and history up-front is always a bit of a turn-off for commercial audiences. And it's very religious, even if it's incredibly clumsy.

E: I agree. The religious inquisition at the end is very heavy-going, to the point of being daring. But it was such a contrast to the light comedy of the battles, the gory details of the rape and the pseudo-intellectual multi-layering. It was trying to be 5 films at once... challenging ... or plain messy and confused?

A: I haven't seen an audience leave a theatre that quickly since The Thin Red Line at The Ritz. And what was with that lady laughing all the time? I guess that's my main problem with the film... comic relief.

E: Yeah in the middle of battles... Introducing a comic element into combat... it celebrates its own falseness... one of the reasons I hated the Fifth Element was its slippages into farce.

A: Scraping "Hello" into the cannonball. That was bad. Once again it's the influence of Braveheart, which was funny in places because he had wacky companions, like the standard daft-nutty Irish guy. But he set that outside the battle. Once the fighting starts, they stopped all that shit.

E: What about that mass bum flashing scene?

A: I know, but I'm talking actual combat scenes here. I think Braveheart set the standard for that type of large-scale carnage. It was pretty spectacular and effective. Mel Gibson can't direct, but whoever coordinated those scenes is some kind of sick genius.

E: Did Braveheart have as much gore, with heads and limbs flying off?

A: That's the thing, Braveheart started that trend for really gruesome battle scenes.

M: I thought it was comical. You saw a head being knocked off and then suddenly a little spurt of blood.

A: And how about the crows picking at the dead bodies.

M: That was good. That was brave, it added to the realism.

E: I hated those cliched Jesus shots. The repeated close-ups of crows and the fast-forward clouds and quick-cutting. It's so derivative, like something out of American Gothic, a Marilyn Manson clip or Chris Carter's Millennium.

A: Straight out of a soap ad. All that running through the fields. That's fucking awful.

M: I liked the colour-tinting of those scenes. But it was a bit off-track.

A: Exactly...cheesy and completely ineffective. And that first half hour, I'm telling you, I was gonna walk out. I ve walked out of better films than that.

E: I wanted to walk out after the battle scenes finished and the inquisition started.

A: I'll tell you what was gruesome...the cannonballs shooting out of those holes in the castle and flattening people.

E: I ve never heard of that before.

A: Neither have I, that's the thing.

E: How about that Porcupine, all those arrows set up to fire at once.

A: I have the feeling that these things didn't exist at the time. I think he's trying to find new ways of filming a battle scene and he s inventing stuff to make brutal hand-to-hand combat look a lot more efficient. Have you seen The Professional? It's a small action-drama for about an hour and a half...

E: I haven't seen it yet...but I have been to Europe, and I've seen castles and chambers of torture.

A: I don't care. Have you seen The Professional? I'm not talking about real life here, I'm talking about movies. Anyway, any other points of criticism?

E: Half the French have got English or American accents. You'd think they would've gotten voice coaches and gotten the French accents right. Perhaps it was a conscious decision of the American producers to keep the dialogue as English as possible but I found it confusing and annoying ... especially the American accents ... and America didn't even exist then did it? I'm surprised the French, especially Besson, didn't protest this misrepresentation.

A: I don't think Luc Besson is an intellectual filmmaker. Look at The Fifth Element.

E: I didn't say he was intellectual, just that the movie shifts into a more cerebral drama in the last half hour.

A: I think Besson would like to think the film is cerebral, but it's so badly done that any argument or point-of-view is drowned out by general incoherency.

E: What did you think of Mila Jovovich?

A: After that film I'm back on your team. I'm voting with you.

E: What made you swing back? What convinced you?

A: It's not really very complex. I didn't take much persuading. Just look at her.

E: I was just going to say, if Kate Winslet was leading an army into battle, you'd be there.

A: I'd be fighting.

E: You d be swatting off arrows like flies...

I thought Jovovich was much more likely to lead an army than Falconetti's Joan in Dreyer's film. Falconetti was so frail and weepy... it drove me nuts, that romantic piety. Jovovich was far more fiery and charismatic.

A: What! You're talking about frail. When Jovovich first comes to court, when they think she might be an assassin, she can barely get two words out before she breaks down and starts crying. Even before she goes to war. When we're introduced to Falconetti she's gone through hell. She has a reason to be so distraught. Besson's version lost me at that point. I didn't believe in her. She was all like: "" It was stupid.

E: I liked how Jovovich's Joan was more tomboyish, more effective. Falconetti was just a weeping Mary figure - not very empowering.

A: It's a different type of film. This film is based on American ideals, on action and physicality. And the battle scenes weren't that good anyway.

E: Dreyer is the other extreme. So austere. So obscure.

A: What's wrong with that. I like that.

E: It was totally...

A: European.

E: Yeah. Alienated. Alienating.

A: And John Malkovich. Another shitty performance. Bland, uninteresting. And who else...Faye Dunaway! What was she doing?

E: Did you see the veins on her forehead? That's all I could focus on whenever she was on screen.

A: Was that a make-up effect or was that really her? If it's real, why didn t they cover it up? If it was make-up...why? What did it add to her character?

E: Maybe it was some historical detail and the Kings mother really did have varicose veins on her noggin...

A: So what would you give the film? Out of ten.

M: Six.

E: Four.

A: No way. Three. (Short pause) Okay, four.

E: It's not surprising Jovovich left Besson after the making of that film. It's like, you can't do anything more for me, I'm out of here!

A: I was thinking about that today, the piousness of the characters celebrities play as opposed to the manipulative types of people they often are. The hypocrisy of that.

E: There could be something in the older director/young female star relationship too. Godard and Anna Karina...

A: Forget that. Roman Polanski and underage girls.

E: Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.

A: Cameron would slot Besson pretty neatly into his "sweaty post-middle-aged male European director" category.

E: Lusting after 20-somethings is universal to all men, it's just that Europeans get away with it more often.

(After this the conversation winds on to many things non-Joan of Arc related.)

adam rivett, eugene chew, melisa kwok che-wai
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