Joan of Arc and Luc Besson’s The Messenger

I finally watched Luc Besson’s The Messenger and my reaction to it is rather mixed. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

For a long time, I mostly wasn’t interested in seeing it since I’d heard it portrayed a kind of ‘unhinged’ Joan of Arc. I figured it was another way to disrespect her and her message, and by extension anyone who may believe “in these things” and/or be a person of faith. And while I’m glad to see that that’s not the vibe I got from the film, neither do I feel that it’s a particularly great representation of Joan.

The movie basically takes the angle that in the midst of Joan’s quiet childhood as a French peasant girl, the supposed divine voices she heard were not the only cause of motivation to free France from English rule: the death-rape of her sister by the English was another. As the movie progresses, we see an increasingly moody, rather bloodthirsty Joan (played by Milla Jovovich) whose main focus is winning battles and kicking the English out. Through the devil’s appearance in the film (played by Dustin Hoffman), we find her questioning herself during her trial about her claims that she never killed anyone, didn’t enjoy inflicting pain, and even the nature of God’s ‘signs’ to her. It concludes with Joan confessing—to the devil—the ‘true nature’ of her motives, abruptly followed by her fiery demise.

Ultimately, the ending is what cemented my opinion of the film. I didn’t like that, based on the way scenes were set-up, it looked/felt as though the burning at the stake was Joan’s punishment for all her wrongful motives. Perhaps this works for those who like to think of God as revengeful and angry, and taking it out on His children whenever He wants, because they did wrong, etc.—but I don’t share that view. And anyway if that’s the view people want to take, then also pray tell why the same thing didn’t happen to the largely corrupt royal family, who basically used Joan of Arc for as long as they needed her—up until Charles VII’s coronation—and proceeded to ignore her pleas thereafter. Clearly, burning at the stake is a horrible way to die no matter how you look at it, but it’s also true that one’s spiritual views will also affect their perception of these events (if not everything in life in general).

Everything else in the film—her occasionally fiery temper, her doubts, her relentless ways—all made sense in different contexts and can likely be explained in the light of her experiences, no matter how eccentric they may seem. But the view that she may have had doubts about her voices and motives is not supported by historical records, so that’s just one of the many areas where Besson’s creative mind is at work. (For example, Joan of Arc showed remarkable endurance during her trials and could often refer back to specific questions that had already been asked of her, much to the puzzlement and frustration of her accusers.)

Aside from depicting a different view of Joan, it also surprisingly delivered a more sympathetic version of the English-siding bishop Pierre Cauchon. I wonder why? Was Besson’s goal to portray everyone in almost an opposite way from the way they’ve traditionally been known? Records show that Cauchon had no problem tampering with evidence to fit his cause against Joan, so I don’t particularly understand this portrayal. True, I’m indeed focused on the truth—something which I’d assume any historian as well as person of faith should be concerned about—and perhaps the movie merely serves to entertain. But even so, the end result is the same: it’s a dark, depressing view of life through war, politics, people, and God. There are no heroes.

As much as I’m a fan of Joan of Arc—my Belgian childhood was filled with her story—I’ve chosen to stick to books about her as opposed to watching movies on her. In fact, I’ve yet to find a *really* good movie and I’m not sure that I’ll ever see one that truly ‘hits the nail on the head.’

Aside from providing an alternate view of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson’s The Messenger also briefly touches on the role of Yolande of Aragon in the story of the maid; an angle which has recently been taken by Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc.

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