The turn of the 21st century is a dichotomous period in which there is a rekindling of religious fervor, from fundamentalist Christians to fundamentalist Muslims, on the one hand, and a pervasive non-spiritual, scientific, materialistic bent in the Western world, on the other. It is a time ripe for a thoughtful retelling of the great historical story of Joan of Arc, a story that has inspired writers from Voltaire to Twain to Bernard Shaw as well as filmmakers of every generation since Edison created the medium over a century ago.
For director Luc Besson, offering up a new version on film, the challenge was to spin this tale of faith and faith betrayed in a way that would convince a contemporary, largely skeptical audience. What he has come up with falls far short of the mark.
Besson, who shares writing credit for the film with Andrew Birkin (The Name of the Rose, King David), presents Joan as a sort of intense Valley Girl, all eye tics and squints, heavy breathing, and a voice that runs out of control when commanding the troops at full volume. In early sequences, Besson works to establish motivation and the fundamentally superstitious mindset from which Joan’s rise to power emerges, but he never for a moment manages to convey a sense of her faith – deeply held belief. Rather, this Joan is a confused schizoid, obsessive-compulsive in her need for confession. She is emotionally needy more than she is religious. The notable absence of acting talent or skill on the part of Milla Jovovich (Besson’s wife) does nothing to improve the misguided script.
If the great myth-like element of the tale rests in the girl of profound faith as she confronts skeptics in the royal court and a cynical, corrupt church, then Besson has already missed in his vapid characterization of Joan. But even in his area of greater strength – providing powerful, often beautiful visual imagery, his results here are distinctly mixed. The early scenes of Joan’s visions do have some effective moments, but clouds racing across the sky are a tired cliche and Besson throws that one in the hopper more than once. The court scenes are stylized and beautifully costumed (Catherine Leterrier); the battle scenes are violent, gritty, bloody. The dialogue is inconsistent, ranging from the embarrassing to the merely corny. ("May God forgive your blasphemy, for I never will!" or "Where does the pain end and the pleasure begin?" or Dustin Hoffman as the voice of conscience: "You didn’t see what was, you saw what you wanted to see.") A great deal of the dialogue is in colloquial twentieth century American dialect, which, of course, is anachronistic and undermines any shred of credibility that might have remained on the screen.
It is in tone that Besson is least consistent. In early scenes he seems to be aiming for a sort of realism, stretched to an expressionistic style – extreme closeups, faces exaggerated in their unattractiveness. He quickly veers into melodrama, particularly with the stabbing of Joan’s sister and the following necrophilism, all witnessed close to by Joan, hiding in a closet. At the Dauphin’s court, John Malkovich verges on high camp, while Faye Dunaway (dramatically made up to look un-madeup) offers the most incisive performance in the movie as Yolande of Aragon, the Dauphin’s mother-in-law and powerful advisor. The central portion of extended battle scenes is often played for farce, while the final section covering Joan’s betrayal and trial for heresy is in a more traditional historical epic mode. The dialogue in the latter segment is vastly improved over what has preceded, but it is too fragmented, too little, and too late.
Besson’s descent into melodrama virtually acknowledges the script’s lack of genuine insight or meaningful characterization. Instead, with violence, gore, and and a Grand Guignol touch (that seemed to belong in the next theater over where The Haunted House was raking in the business), Besson manipulates his audience’s emotions instead of informing, inspiring, or illuminating its intellect. This is a mindless, mass market film disguised as serious historical/religious drama. Its pretension to being other than it is offends more deeply than its trashing of a most intriguing moment of history.