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Decapitated Epic 

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (R)

Columbia Pictures

I hate movie trailers these days. Those slick, rapid cut, tell-the-whole-story mini movies cost more to make than your average indie film and leave absolutely nothing to the imagination -- or to the film itself.

So, I was very excited when I saw the first trailers for The Messenger, the story of Jeanne d'Arc. The beautifully filmed, carefully edited vision of a young girl in a field of sunflowers, cavorting beneath the blue sky then turning to sever the yellow heads with a silver sword made me want to drop everything and run to the theater for a visual treat.

What a disappointment.

The Messenger is a badly paced, gratuitously violent film that manages to turn one of the most exciting tales of Western civilization into a study of bad special effects and worse psychobabble.

The outlines of the story are so much a part of our cultural mythology that they barely need repeating. At the height of the 100 years war in the 15th century, the English are in the midst of the slow conquest of France. The French troops are demoralized, several important cities are under siege, and Charles VII of France (John Malkovich) is in control of only the southern part of the country.

Meanwhile, a peasant girl named Jeanne d'Arc (Milla Jovovich) is visited by voices and sees visions telling her to lead an army against the English and install the dauphin as the king of France. She does all of this before she is captured by the English, found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake at Rouen at the age of 19.

It takes only a moment's consideration to understand how radical Jeanne d'Arc's life must have been. As a peasant girl she would not only have been unable to read and write -- likely she could not even ride a horse. The church considered a woman wearing trousers a sin, let alone a girl leading armies. In a feudal society, a man stepping out of the bounds of the God-given social order could be given a death sentence. Yet Jeanne managed to convince the dauphin, the commanders, the armies and the church of her holy mission and went on to lead French troops to several remarkable victories.

How many wonderful stories reside in this tale? Stories of class, gender, faith, politics, physical struggle -- all of these have participated in her legend and made 500-year-old history worthy of telling today. Instead of any of these, however, director Luc Besson (The Professional) opts for a medieval retooling of Rambo 5. Mind you, he does a good job of recreating early 15th century battles, complete with full armor, boiling oil, hand-to-hand combat, and nasty whirlygigs that whip the heads off men trying to make their way over castle walls. Unfortunately, even this high spot of the film is marred by a ridiculous insistence on graphic special effects so we're forced to watch the resultant headless corpse spout copious amounts of blood before falling off the ladder.

Alas, that isn't the worst example of Besson's bad taste, but that's as much as I can bear to describe. Unintentionally, The Messenger treads perilously close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail sans good spirit and humor.

To humanize Jeanne after all the severed limbs, Besson intersperses the overwrought battle sequences with Jeanne's oh-so-slow understanding of the horror of what her voices have asked her to perform. After one hard-won victory, Jeanne looks around her and says something to the effect of "so... much... blood..." In the hands of a better director and actor such a revelation might have been profound. But Besson paces this movie so poorly (its two-and-a-half hours feels closer to three), and Jovovich delivers virtually all her lines with... the... same... inflection... and... speed... that the power of this moment, and many others, is lost.

To make matters worse, violence degenerates into psychotherapy in the final sequences where Joan is visited in her prison cell not by God but by her conscience, for goodness sake, in the form of a hirsute and hooded Dustin Hoffman. Denied confession by her church, she is instead granted absolution by Hoffman after confessing that maybe her visions were overstatements, that perhaps she liked the killings and battle and possibly she wasn't as pure as she claimed. The message here: forget the church, girl. As long as you and your conscience are in agreement, we're good to go. Load on the kindling, we're ready to burn.

A few weeks ago, German film scholar Gudrun Marci-Boehncke gave a lecture at Colorado College arguing that the many movies about the Titanic tell us more about the era in which the films were made than about the disaster itself. A version made during the Third Reich claims Aryan superiority, one made during the 1950s exhorts the primacy of the family, while the most recent offering mirrors the cynicism and anomie of the century's waning years.

It was a useful analysis, and one that could be applied to The Messenger as well. A quick look at Besson's retelling gives us insight into our own pitiful obsessions -- a fascination with graphic violence; a romanticization of childhood; a worship of beauty (like former model Jovovich's -- why is she the only character with good teeth?) to the exclusion of function (like decent acting); a belief that a cheap understanding of our own psychology trumps any redemption.

None of this gives us insight into the remarkable story of the peasant girl visited by God and led by faith to extraordinary feats, and, unfortunately, makes for sorry filmmaking as well.

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