A commentary by Ronald F. Maxwell, writer and director of the motion picture “Gettysburg”. Mr. Maxwell is preparing his own film on Joan of Arc.
Please note: This commentary is not focused on Christian content. The text below is provided to give information on the historical errors contained throughout this film. Some users may wish to submit this to their local newspapers.
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The French ecclesiastics delegated by the occupying English powers to the thankless chore of determining whether Joan of Arc was an impostor or a heretic guided by Satan would love this film. Luc Besson attempts to prove what even the best prosecuting clerics of her day could not: that Joan was a demented, misled, hysterical, confused and guilt-ridden phony. But even with the power and money of Sony and Gaumont behind him, he is no more convincing than the inquisitors of Rouen.
Since the historical record of perhaps the most documented trial from the medieval era is almost totally ignored, among other things we are never told about the saints Margaret, Catherine and Michael. In the trial transcripts, under grueling cross-examination over a period of months, Joan herself identifies and describes these encounters. Why are these filmmakers not interested in taking Joan at her own words nor in the testimony of anyone else who knew her as recorded in voluminous first-hand accounts in the trial of rehabilitation conducted just twenty years after her execution? And why is no allusion made to the significance of these particular saints to the French and English societies of this era? The difference between the story of a young girl who claims to have been visited by specific saints and one who is transfixed by thrashing winds, rushing clouds and a wolf pack on the hunt is the difference between the real life Joan of Arc and the fictitious marionette of this film.
The film begins with the child Joan witnessing the brutal murder and rape (in that order) of her sister Catherine by marauding English soldiers. There is no evidence in the historical record that this ever happened and, in any case, it was not English soldiers who ransacked Domremy, but Burgundians from the other side of the river Meuse. Aside from the fundamental responsibility of any artist to strive for the truth, why does this matter? It matters because, with the subtlety of a pole-axe, the filmmakers are desperate to provide the young Joan with “motivation.” Revenge, the all-purpose motivator of nineties movies! This graphically filmed scene (qualifying the film for an R rating, thereby keeping young people away from a story about a young person) is followed by a scene with a priest in which she rails at God for permitting these atrocities. There were many horrors that took place in the Hundred years War, and much to rage at both God and man, but this made-up incident wasn’t one of them.
When a film is founded on a lie, and a perverse one at that, nothing that follows can be trusted. In the case of “The Messenger”, a true story of love and sacrifice, of dedication and faith, is cinematically morphed to a false one of hatred, bitterness, fury and revenge. How was this incredible revelation overlooked by playwrights Shaw, Schiller, Anouilh, Peguy, Brecht; historians Duby, Pernoud, Michelet, Warner, Fabre, Quichertat, Contamine, Luce; novelists Anatole France, Claudel, Delteil, Dumas, Malraux, Twain, Tournier, Vioux, Keneally; and, filmmakers Dryer, Ucicky, Gastyne, DeMille, Fleming, Preminger, Robert Bresson, Enrico, Panfilov and Rivette?
This Joan, strangely removed from the medieval universe in which she lived, neither speaks the names of her saints nor the names of the Virgin Mary or of Jesus, even though she had these names sewn into her banner, regularly prayed, exhorted others to pray and regarded own virginity as crucial to her mission. This question of her virginity, so significant to her contemporaries, is not even alluded to in this film. In the fifteenth century, all believers knew that Satan could not enter into the body of a virgin. That may seem a quaint notion to us now, half a millenium later, but it made all the difference to those who considered giving Joan their support and to those who would later seek to condemn her.
The sets and costumes indicate a film set in the early fifteenth century, but nothing in the character and belief system of this portrayal takes the slightest step out of the pop culture of the late twentieth century. If the intention is allegory, why set it in its own physical context? Is this honest? Bertold Brecht, in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards”, transposes the scene to 1930’s Germany, where she becomes a “creditable visionary and worthy antagonist for powerful and nasty men.” In the Russian feature film, “The Screentest”, (1970), Gleb Panfilov sets Joan’s story in Moscow, wrapped within a film crew making a movie about Joan of Arc. Both are examples of poetic license and both stand as convincing portrayals of the character of the actual woman.
If “The Messenger” is an attempt at fabricating a feminist Joan, one who carries the torch of womankind into a man’s world, the filmmakers would have done well to avail themselves of Christine de Pizan’s epic poem on Joan, the only poem written by a contemporary. It is a paean to womankind, an ode to Joan as liberator and woman of faith in the tradition of Judith and the selfless saints of antiquity whom Joan herself adored. If Joan was indeed the boorish, screaming, hysterical, frenzied, petulant, angry and weepy female as portrayed in this film, the salutary proto-feminist poet would not have written about her, nor would anyone of either sex have followed her out of her pasture, let alone into a campaign to liberate France.
In our modern world, persons who claim to hear voices are sometimes thought to be delusional or schizophrenic. At the very least, the sound of bells ringing in one’s ears can be diagnosed as tinnitus. In Julian Jayne’s fascinating treatise, “The Origin of Consciousness…” he suggests the relationship of the brain’s left and right lobes as separate entities in a life-long dialogue. Such an exploration might have made for an interesting and worthwhile film, but this film tosses out the possibility of a delusional Joan like a sensational expose in some glossy gossip weekly instead of as a valid idea to be seriously explored as was the case with films that at least tangentially deal with these themes such as “Breaking the Waves”, “The Anchorite”, or “Therese”.
Near the end of the film Dustin Hoffman appears as one of her voices, ostensibly her conscience, his mission being to debunk the mythology of Joan’s belief system. There follows a laborious sequence where the miraculous appearance of Joan’s sword in her youth is recalled and then explained by circumstantial evidence. The beautiful photography, insisting score and weighty authority of Mr. Hoffman’s performance cannot hide the fact that Mr. Besson is setting up an historical straw man just so he can tear it down. In keeping with all the other historical infidelities of this film, there was no sword in the field, and the real Joan never claimed that her sword fell down to her from heaven.
This cinematic hocus-pocus is revealing of a more profound absence in this film, the total inability to comprehend and to express the miraculous while simultaneously adding to the clutter and confusion which has over the centuries accumulated to the Joan story like barnacles.
A film that separates fact from fiction would be welcome. What is the point of a film that further obfuscates, that makes the already murky waters an impenetrable tar? Beyond the mythology and folklore lived a real person in real times who said and did real things. The known facts, or even the events as conjectured by the best historians, are infinitely more interesting and dramatic and fantastic than any of the lame inventions of this film. The point, however, is not that this or that miracle occurred or didn’t occur. The “miracle” is Joan herself. How did a seventeen-year-old girl, a peasant from the fringes of the kingdom, manage to enlist the trust and support of a nation and play a pivotal role in expelling a foreign invader? Not only does this film fail to pose this central question, it seeks to remove the authenticity of Joan’s faith and the faith of her countrymen as at least a factor in these complex events.
The film does try to portray Joan as a warrior, which is in welcome contrast to the sometimes limited view of Joan as simply a pious victim. In the fashion of “Braveheart”, there are hacked off limbs, decapitations with blood gushing forth, maulings and maimings, and spilled entrails—plenty of superficial movie mucous. But there is none of the dark beauty of equally violent films such as Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” or “Sanjuro”, with their existential undertones and potent sense of character imbedded and connected to a specific time in a specific place. Ms. Jovovich’s Joan is a thoroughly modern Milla who struts and poses across the battlefield as if she’s doing a layout for Vogue. She is surrounded by a motley crew of armored buffoons and clowns who have as much to do with Dunois, Lahire and Giles de Rais as La Cirque du Soleil. Real jeopardy is replaced by theatrical bravado and cliched camaraderie, the kind of movie where every other stunt is supposed to be a joke. So much so, that Joan’s wounding at Les Tourelles arouses neither sympathy nor apprehension. It is emotionally empty. When it comes to scenes of battle, this film has neither the character based grittiness of Kenneth Branagh’s nor the sheer visual splendor of Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” films, both set in precisely the same epoch.
Might this film be Vanity Fair or, to put it in its proper historical context, a bonfire of the vanities? The term originated in feudal times, when the populace were exhorted to dispense with the trinkets and trivialities of their Earthy excesses, hurling dice, ornaments, fancy clothes and playing cards into the flames in an orgy of self-purification. Perhaps this film teaches us what should be relegated to the flames: the vanities of arrogance (thinking a film on Joan can be made with no regard to the research and the record), of self-adulation (believing that cleverness can substitute for a genuine search for the truth), and of vanity itself (the obvious way in which the role was cast and the reason for which the movie itself was made.)
Notwithstanding other qualifications and talents, can a filmmaker attempt a film on Joan of Arc without a sense of humility and a willingness to listen; perhaps not to the Saints who visited Joan, but at least to the hundreds of real life people who knew her and whose testimony has been recorded for posterity, to the hundreds of scholars who have studied her over the centuries and to the artists who have written poems and plays and novels and made movies about her? Would there be something innately authentic in availing one’s self of this kind of knowledge, in submitting one’s self to this kind of discipline, in modestly accepting one’s valid place in the collective effort of generations seeking illumination and truth? In such organic context could a filmmaker make a lasting contribution to our understanding and our continuing fascination with this remarkable woman?
Regrettably, “The Messenger” stands off by itself, disconnected from any authentic witness or tradition or community, whether religious, artistic, cinematic, historic or psychological. It is the ultimate ego trip, the polar opposite of the historical Joan, who surrendered her ego to what she herself saw as a higher calling. She came to be a liberator at the head of armies because she earned their trust, because she was self-less, she was viscerally connected with her people, she was authentic, she was faithful and she was loving—immensely loving. That is partly an understanding of her power—the power to rally soldiers, inspire the common people, win over princes and prelates, and the power to endure in our hearts over the centuries. All else is mystery. The inability to distinguish between what is historical and what is mysterious, compounded by the inadequacy in rigorously pursuing either choice, is the failure of this motion picture.
In 1899 Georges Melies produced the very first film on Joan of Arc. There is more truth in any single frame of that silent, awkward beginning than in this entire inflated state of the art mega-mess. It’s not Joan who should be judged as a fraud. It’s this silly, heartless, mean-spirited, small-minded and completely phony film.
Year of Release—1999
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