You know... For every adventure and journey I take. For every cool film thing I get to do before any of you. I have that same sad feeling of "MAN, I WANNA DO THAT" revisited upon me a hundredfold. Don't get me wrong... There are a lot of pretty darn cool things I get to do.... but there are so many more that people like you and Moriarty get to do. I think that is why I love doing this site. I can't be everywhere... experience everything. But through this site, through people like you and Moriarty... I get to get this sense... that I've been there. Of course all that sweet sentimentality just goes up in a big explosion when Moriarty goes and pulls out that friggin ACE CARD of a Time Machine and cheats.. That's right. He cheats. He uses that TIME MACHINE to simply CHEAT his way into films earlier than the rest of us. And... He sucks. I mean... God... Sigh.
Before I send you on to Moriarty's review of THE MESSENGER: THE JOAN OF ARC STORY, I need to warn you of the HEAVY SPOILERS with which he discusses this film. At certain points he is describing 'series of shots' concerning THE END OF THE FILM! And it may very well be far more spoilerish than you are currently thinking. It's... different. So... before you get into this, let me share my thoughts upon talking with Moriarty tonight about this film.
First off he believes it is not only a great film but a transcendent work of art. He truly and deep down loves this film more than BRAVEHEART, because of everything BEYOND the battles and the gungho bravado that film had. He prefers this movie over EXCALIBUR, though he really has a deep place in his heart for that film. They are very different films.
If you don't wish to know some very specific details of the film, leave now.... read below up until he says he has to go into details to discuss his feelings with the film. As for me. I'm going to write 10,000 times: "Moriarty Sucks Big Time, Even Though He Rocks!" Take care...
Hey, Head Geek...
"I was about ten years old... I was taking a shortcut home through the forest... when a strange wind began to blow. It was such a strange sound, almost like words calling me. Everything was moving so fast. I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe. God had given me a message, a message to deliver."
Spoken in a breathless near-whisper, this bit of dialogue opens the long trailer for THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC. It could also be said to be the key moment that lies at the heart of this epic, moving, challenging new work of art, a film that is among the year's finest, and which marks a major leap forward for French film stylist Luc Besson.
It is genuinely difficult for me to describe my reaction to this film, and I'm going to have to discuss spoilers, I'm sure, to do the film justice. It's not an easily digested "movie," no simple straightforward recount of the events of Joan's life. Instead, it's a prayer that Besson has offered up in memory of what made Joan human and holy in equal measure. It's a meditation on the very foundation of Joan's faith. It's also not due in theaters until November 12, a fact which was driving me absolutely bugfuck this morning.
You see, Harry, you just had to go and post that link to the trailer last night. I hadn't even seen the teaser trailer in the theater yet. As far as I was concerned, all I knew was that the film was coming, that Besson had made, Mila Jovovich was starring, and the supporting cast sounded good. All of that was a plus, but I wasn't really manic to see the film based on it. It was one of many on my list for the fall. This morning, I get up and I'm making my online rounds when I come across that damnable link. I click on it, wait a few minutes for the trailer to download, then press play, hoping it would at least look great.
As soon as the trailer stopped playing, I called Harry Lime and asked him to meet me at one of the many storage units I've got around the city. Twenty minutes later, he was helping me wrestle my infamous Time Machine out from under some debris.
"Wait a minute," he said. "This is a time machine?"
"A real time machine?"
"Have you used it?"
I explained to him about how I saw THE MUMMY early, how I ended up with the STAR WARS script so far in advance, and how much the sonofabitch hurts, and why I had decided that it probably wasn't worth it unless there was something really cool that I just couldn't wait for.
Lime flashed me that oily con man's grin of his as it dawned on him that we were going to actually use the device. "So what are we seeing? Is it X-MEN? Is it LORD OF THE RINGS?" He made a funny little girly sound, which was doubly odd coming out of Orson Welles' face, and asked, "Is it EPISODE II?"
"Nope... it's THE MESSENGER." He looked at me like he was waiting for the punchline, so I had him help me load the Time Machine into the car, we drove back to the Labs, and I showed him the trailer. He immediately understood my excitement, and we boarded the Machine, fired it up, and hopped to November 13, Saturday afternoon.
It took Lime about a half-hour to stop crying (time travel really, really, really hurts -- like a soccer-spike-to-the-nads hurts), but that was enough time for us to make it to the Dome, where THE MESSENGER was nearly sold out. Once we got in and got seated, the lights went down almost immediately, and all the hassle, all the pain, all the effort of getting there was immediately forgotten.
The film opens with a striking opening scroll that establishes we are in France and the year is 1420. Using a striking image of blood pouring over a map, Besson quickly establishes the English occupation of France, explains the basic politics behind it, and establishes that only one thing is going to deliver France from its circumstance... "a miracle."
Suddenly we are in darkness. A man's face fills the frame, a priest. "Have you come to confess?"
On the opposite side of a screen, a young girl's hand appears, followed by a little girl's face. The priest rolls his eyes, frustrated, but smiles a bit. A young Joan comes to confession for the second time in the same day, her fifth time that week, a habit that her priest seems familiar with. She's an inquisitive, open girl, fiercely devout already, impatient to reach the age where she can receive communion. She confesses to stealing her father's shoes to give to a homeless man. The priest smiles, assures her that her father will forgive her.
"He already has," she responds. "I want Jesus to forgive me." For Joan, her personal relationship with Christ is already of paramount importance to her. She wants God's love, wants to please God. The priest absolves her, sends her home, and we get a look at the world in which Joan lives. It is easy to believe in God when surrounded by such amazing evidence of his hand, the purples and greens and reds of the French countryside, the deeper greens and shadows of the forests. Besson's eye is key to this film. It's not just pretty pictures. He's interested in what this beauty means, in what it says about Joan and how it affects her.
Almost immediately, Besson shows us that Joan is more than just a peasant girl as Joan is struck with a vision that knocks her flat in a field. Mysteriously, she finds a sword that she retrieves, then is shown another vision, this one even more startling. In it, she finally comes face to face with some manifestation of God and Jesus and the Spirit, and Besson has chosen a striking face for his Christ. It's indicitive of the way he's cast the whole movie. There are a few movie stars who show up -- John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Tcheky Karyo, Dustin Hoffman -- but they are photographed to emphasize those amazing unique character faces of theirs, and not to satisfy any movie star vanity. Faye Dunaway's severe wicked witch appearance should displel that notion immediately. There's not a detail of this film that doesn't in some way contribute to the overall impact. Like the films KUNDUN and THE THIN RED LINE, this is a movie in which the imagery is all part of the film's message, from the colors used to the elegant composition by Thierry Arbogast to the faces of the actors. The film is thick with mood, ripe with atmosphere. Also, special mention must be made of how much the astonishing aural work of Eric Serra, whose compositions for the film are both epic and experimental. It's as strange as his FIFTH ELEMENT score, as beautiful as anything he's ever written for Besson, and it doesn't play by any traditional rules as far as historical period dramas are concerned.
The film also moves quickly, never wasting time. It's not much over two hours in running time, but it feels even shorter than that. Besson doesn't hand the movie over to his supporting players. Malkovich is used sparingly, as is Dunaway, but both are very, very good here. Their characters are etched indelibly in only a handful of scenes. In particular, Malkovich's Charles, Dauphin of France, is someone you are both drawn to and outraged by. You want him to be a better person than he is. There's a stunning moment, intimate and strange, between Joan and Charles when she first tells him of her visions. He's the only person she has ever confessed them to in detail, and the power of them literally sends him staggering from the room. For Joan, it's a release, the closest thing to intimacy that the virgin girl has ever experienced.
Quickly, she is dispatched to the front, where she says she will retake Orleans from the English. Here's where the sequence came that I suspect will be most prominently emphasized in the way this film is sold. Make no mistake of it -- these are some of the most stirring, wrenching battle sequences I've ever seen in a historical drama, but they are not the reason for the film. I've heard many people mention BRAVEHEART when talking about this film, and it does Besson's work a disservice. THE MESSENGER is leaps and bounds better than BRAVEHEART was, and it's because it transcends the greatness of the battle scenes. As terrifying and as exhilarating as they are, they are just one small element of the film, and once Orleans has been taken, that's basically it. Joan doesn't have a ton of adventures. She makes the difference in this one key campaign. There's a sequence later when she tries to take Paris and fails, but it's not staged on anything like the grand scale that the earlier sequence is.
Also, be warned that there is a fair amount of violence in these sequences, but it feels far less graphic to me than the Normandy beach scene in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. In fact, I'd even venture a guess that MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL has more spurting gore than this film does. What THE MESSENGER does so well is it makes us, as the audience, feel the weight of the violence. When she's told to look out on the glory of her victory, Joan is sickened. She sees the arms, the heads, the feet, the burnt and slashed bodies, the dogs, the birds, the blood, the filth, and she is sickened. "What glory?" she asks. We are shown how beautiful God's world is in the film's lyrical opening, and we are shown, by way of contrast, just how horrible we can make it in these sequences.
It's what happens with Joan after her victory at Orleans that is the real focus of Besson's film, though, and it's here where the film goes from being great to being truly transcendent. We know from the beginning of the film, just as we did with TITANIC, what the tragic ending must be. Joan will be burnt at the stake. How she goes from revered hero to reviled heretic is the material that I found most fascinating. Jovovich, an artist who continues to impress and amaze me with each fresh endeavor, brings to life a Joan we've never seen before, and it's because of her particular choices that the second half of the film works for me. Traditionally, Joan is played as a Virgin Saint, a pillar of strength, an Amazon with the might of God at her back. Not so this time. This Joan is as human and as fragile as Willem Dafoe's Christ was. She is a terrified girl who has been told by God to lead an army into battle. She is caught up in a storm, riding it out, and she never surrenders her right to be afraid or to be uncertain or to feel pain or sorrow. I was so deeply moved by her during the battle scenes that I had trouble watching them. When she is arrested for heresy and brought before a Church court, her mixture of outrage and betrayal and even fear is affecting.
But it's in one particular sequence of scenes that she truly proves herself, and to discuss them, I must clarify something about this film that I don't believe has been discussed anywhere. I know that the trailer doesn't hint at it. What I'm referring to is the nature of Dustin Hoffman's performance in the film. So far, every bit of press material I've seen refers to him as "The Grand Inquisitor." Well, what does that mean? I figured he was the one in charge of Joan's trial... and in a way, he is. He's in charge of the trial that's truly important, the one within Joan as to whether she did the right thing or not. You see, Dustin Hoffman plays a character who appears to only one person -- Joan. At first, it's impossible to tell if he is supposed to be God, the Devil, or even the voice of Joan herself. He is indeed an inquisitor, though. He provokes Joan, challenges her, dares her to believe in a God that has led her to this place, to this fate. He mocks her visions, makes her doubt her own assumptions about certain "signs." His scenes with Joan are electric, fascinating, and mark a rare grace note for Hoffman these days.
Let me explain by way of digression for a moment. I respect the hell out of Dustin Hoffman. I consider him a brilliant actor who has done some exemplary work. However, most of that work was done before I was an adult moviegoer, and it's work that I never really experienced on first run. I don't know what it felt like to sit there in the dark and discover that amazing performance in THE GRADUATE, or what it must have felt like to wonder who the hell that guy was. I was way too young to see ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN in the theater or MIDNIGHT COWBOY or MARATHON MAN or LITTLE BIG MAN or any of his classic early work. He's very good in RAIN MAN, but I always thought that Cruise had the hard role in the movie. Even TOOTSIE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER were just a bit too early for me. As a result, I've been lulled into thinking of Hoffman as a likeable guy who shows up these days in mainly mediocre films. Then, out of the blue, he makes an appearance like this and absolutely reasserts his brilliance.
The impact of his role can't be underestimated, either, since it's one of the clues as to what Besson's really doing here. For all the epic size and sound and fury of this film, it's really an intimate little story about one girl and the voices in her head. She wrestles with the nature of those voices until the last moments of her life, and her strength in those final moments comes from having reached a peace with her faith. In many ways, this portrait of Joan raises the ghost of T.E. Lawrence for me as a viewer. I can't help but think about the way O'Toole wrestled with the difference between his nature and his desire. Here, Joan is forced to confront the fact that she might not have heard God's voice. She might, in fact, just be a girl crazed by hatred, driven by a desire for revenge to raise arms. It would be fair enough. There's an early sequence involving the destruction of Joan's village and the fate of her sister that is brutal, ugly, and unforgettable. It literally shatters the young Joan, and the scenes that follow show just how deeply the wounds go. If her voices are just a reaction to the extreme grief, then it would be entirely believable.
In one pivotal moment, just before the battle at Orlean, Joan speaks to the French soldiers assembled. It's not your typical "movie" speech, each word perfect, but it's a raw emotional plea, the best wounded prayer Joan can muster, and it ends with her crying, "Follow me if you love me! Follow me!" And the army, moved by her vision, fuelled by her passion, follow her into frenzy. Later, alone with Hoffman, that moment is thrown back at her. "'Follow me if you love me!'" Hoffman mimics. "Where is there room for God in that?"
It's the film's final moments that really broke my heart, though, and that demonstrate how unique Besson's vision of the story is. In any other filmmaker's version, we'd be treated to a big, moving, final sequence in which Joan is led out to the stake, tied up, and in which she is allowed one final moment to make her big dying speech. We've seen the moment... we've even seen it done well. It's Mel Gibson on the rack screaming, "FREEDOM!!" It's also not important to Jovovich's Joan. She says as much in an earlier scene. "I do not care about saving my body. I care about saving my soul." When she finishes her final scene with Hoffman, alone in her cell, and finds the grace she so desperately needs, Joan's journey is done. She has found her way into God's arms, and nothing else is important. Hoffman lays a hand on her, blesses her in Latin, grants her absolution. Just like that, Besson cuts to the fire, to Joan already on the stake, already burning. It's stark, sudden, and graphic. We see the wood beneath her feet go up, followed by her dress, her skin. As she bucks and twists, her eyes find something, lock on.
And in that last shot, we look through Joan's eyes, through the flames, and we find a cross silhouetted against the sky, one final sign. It is beautiful, and it speaks so clearly to the heart of this girl, and it is an image that I will not shake any time soon.
Harry Lime and I returned to the Labs, where it was still midday Monday. We were both quiet, humbled a bit by the film. I'm sure he'll weigh in on the film in the next few days. I know that it's a film worth thinking over, chewing on. I suspect opinion will be hotly divided over it upon release, but that happens with most truly great art. And make no mistake... that's exactly what THE MESSENGER is.