Ok, I'll hold my hands up and admit it, I'm a fan of epic movies. Might not exactly be everyone's cup of tea but I can happily sit my way through a meanderingly long and extended movie. A three hour movie is nothing and if it's about a historical or real life event then all the better.
Joan of Arc is not a character that I knew much about. Yes, I recall that she was mentioned in the odd history lesson at school but beyond that I'll confess that she's never been of much intrigue for me to find out more. So, here you have a movie directed by Luc Besson about a self-professed Messenger of God who came to be known as the Maid of Orleans. Should make for an interesting watch I would have thought?
It's apparent that Besson's challenge was in the casting of the characters and placing his then wife Milla Jovovich into the lead role proved to be a bold move. Perhaps it was down to an overbearing sense of patriotism that led him to want to make this film about a French heroine? That would make some sense but I'm not so sure as to why his wife sprang to mind? Either way, the choice he faced was in making a sweeping fantastical epic or opting for a historically correct biopic. I'm no historian but it's quite evident from the off that this film was never seriously going to go about accurately turning the pages of 15th Century French history.
The young Jeanne is played by Jane Valentine. Growing up in the village of Domremy during the '100 year' war between the English and the French, the young girl is brought up religiously as a devout Catholic. Her passion for the church soon leads to an abnormal obsession for performing daily confessions. As a child she feels the need to be cleansed of her daily sins and rid of any lingering guilt. It is quite clear that Jeanne's love of God was quite unlike any other child of her age. Those of such a tender age are also highly impressionable.
When the English storm through the sleepy village they ruthlessly murder and pillage all those in sight and unfortunately for Jeanne her elder sister is one of them. She is raped and murdered right in front of her in there own home. Jeanne is forever left traumatised in a catatonic state by the haunting image of that murder.
Rather peculiarly the movie strangely conveys quite a degree of ambiguity from very early on. I can only imagine Besson must have wished for it to be so or for it to be so very open to differing interpretations. What you find here is that Jeanne has many visions where she feels she is confronted by God or in the presence of God. Whether it is God, a messenger of God or a boy Jesus is up for debate as it is thoroughly confusing. It is also debatable that she is so completely engulfed by her pain, rage and hatred that she is in fact quite possibly going insane. These visions stick with her throughout her life and as a teenager her single mindedness knows no bounds. 'God' continues to speak to her and her mission is driven onwards in wanting to fight the English.
Charles the VII, the Dauphin of France is played by John Malkovich. Jeanne continually pleads by sending letters through to him in that she wants to lead an army to drive the English out of Orleans. Not that this was ever a feasible notion but a disenfranchised army can be inspired by the strangest of things. France is in turmoil, the war is long and drawn and the people need a hero...so up steps a willing heroine. The Dauphin is uncanny but his mother is more calculating. For those that can picture a familiar face then you will see that Yolande D'Aragon is played Faye Dunaway.
Convinced by his mother that this young girl has inspired so many people with her visions of God the Dauphin feels he has nothing to lose in granting her an army. It feels incredible that a teenage girl living in those times could be granted such a request. Then again it shows the depths of morale that must surely have existed in France for this to ever have happened.
There's nothing much wrong with the film up until this point. Once you have accepted the fact that the French army are happy or bemused enough to be led by a girl that can barely hold a sword, then the story unfolds. Unfortunately almost everything going forward beyond this point becomes nothing other than a mess. I put much of this down to the castings. Milla Jovovich is no lead act and she single-handedly brings this movie down to a disappointing level. As an actress she has the looks to play the estranged character but she doesn't have the gravitas to rally all those around her. In many of the battle scenes she is overpowered by all the fighting in both physical and in empowerment in the role. It's not long before she has to resort to shouting her lines in an over the top fashion. The shouting soon becomes an incessant shrieking voice, it grates on the ear and the whole thing becomes highly annoying and quite tiring very rapidly so. What you have here is a Jeanne that is continually screaming, so much so that it only serves to deafen the army around her into submission.
It's not all bad though as the battles scenes are generally well done. At least Besson doesn't fall into the trap of making it feel all artificially rosy around her and thankfully he doesn't. It's gritty and grimy and it's no place for a lady. The blood and gore on offer is respectably convincing enough and the action pads out the middle of the film. Jeanne manages to inspire a victory in Orleans through her sheer single mindedness and directness of approach. If anything it's the directness of her tactics that simply overwhelms the English. Having gained an unlikely victory in the most unlikely of circumstances it only further cements the belief in both her and those around her that the hand of divine intervention has played a part.
As the film draws to its final chapters the more commonly known facts of her history come in to play. Once Orleans is secured the Dauphin has his eye set on regaining Paris? However, the politics of the situation lead him to opt for a political alliance as a more ready solution and it's one that leads to her capture by the enemy. There was never any love lost towards her by the English and she was tried for heresy under an ecclesiastical court.
Jeanne's revelations never cease and are eventually replaced with infrequent visits of a darker character played by Dustin Hoffman. I was left a little confused as to what role he was playing and I presumed it was meant to be Satan. Once again it's all very open to ambiguity. As for Hoffman's performance, well he quite obviously turned up only for the money. Nevertheless, these darker revelations have a powerful effect upon her and will probably leave you in as much doubt about her.
What remains interesting is that although her fate was ultimately sealed by the English it was actually never that straightforward a matter for them to secure her sentence. The problem was further complicated and componded by a number of factors. One of those was that when she stood for trial the ministers of the church felt that she may actually have had a connection with God. No man of the cloth would dare question her relationship otherwise.
The story certainly drags on a bit towards the end but it's quite important that what had seemed an inevitable sentence was never actually in reality a foregone conclusion. To be fair to Besson he has tried to tell the story in a way that acknowledges her efforts and importance in French history and without over glamorising her as a person.
The movie closes leaving you in enough of a doubt as to whether she was a saint or a sinner. Jeanne was burnt alive on a stake in 1431 aged 19. The ambiguity is there right through to the end and if it's anything that helps save this movie it's the fact that you are left wondering who on earth was she?
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