November 30th, 1999

The Messenger

by Warren Wilansky • in Films

the messengerAfter a long day’s work, I’m not usually in the mood to go see a movie. And since I work all the time, it seems my anti-movie mood is common. Truth is, I don’t really see all that many movies. It probably doesn’t help that my attention span has dwindled to nil, thanks to multi-tasking and staring at a computer screen all day. But I did muster up the courage and energy to head out to see Luc Besson’s The Messenger : The Story of Joan of Arc.

I’m usually a bit worried before seeing a Besson movie — not because I can’t look at his work and appreciate it; I do appreciate that he has a good sense of style. But it always seems his films are lacking a little something, a “je ne sais quoi”. I differed and disagreed with my friends about Besson’s the Professional. Most loved it; I didn’t. It wasn’t the style that bothered me, that rip-off Hong Kong chic, but the way Besson leers at his actors from behind the camera. That’s it, that bothersome ‘je ne sais quoi’: it’s Besson’s vision of the human being. He’s very sexual, and for me, leering sexually at a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman just didn’t do it.

The next of his movies I saw (I am getting to the review…) was the Fifth Element. Again, I diverged with many among my discussing-popular-culture-over-beers group of friends. I enjoyed the Fifth Element, they didn’t. For me, the story was…eh, not great. It had Bruce Willis in it, which is usually a signal for me this I’m in for cheesy Hollywood trash (exception: The Sixth Sense — see reviewguys 1.04.) While the substance and script of Fifth was lacking, it was full of style, style, and more style. I fell in love with Lee Loo Dallas Multi Pass.

So now you have an idea of where I’m coming from as I enter the theatre: conflict.

Yin and Yang.

Good versus Evil. Church versus State. War versus Peace. Joan versus Joan.

It’s quite fitting that a movie about the battle to understand the life and different sides of Joan of Arc would lead me to question the different sides of Milla Jovovich. And I did question Milla’s ability to hold a movie of this scope together, and in parts, she clearly struggles. But at other times, she radiates.

Jovovich — model turned actress turned singer turned model turned l’Oreal spokesperson turned actor again — obviously understands the camera. She understands how to use it, how to love it. (I’m sure having your then-husband’s camera loving you back doesn’t hurt either). There are moments when she just gets it, and you think she might be destined to become a full-fledged star. (She did pull off serious critical acclaim for her album The Divine Comedy – a real leap from within the world of modelling.)

Then there are other moments when she gets all shaky and whispery, as though drawing on lessons from the William Shatner School of Extreme Acting. Still, overall, Jovovich pulls it off; she had me bound more than a few times. Just watch the camera flow with her as though she’s being cradled like a baby, in the scene when she searches out the Dauphin.

As usual, Besson continues to shine as a master of style. I enjoy Besson’s work because it is not in Hollywood style — it seems to stem from a larger visual language. This is not to say that his films are high-art, but they are not the ‘Euro-trash’ I’ve heard The Fifth Element described as. In Messenger, Besson captures mood and time. It’s as though he intended more to frame images than to frame motion. He seems to understand the moment, the instance — to both his credit, and to his detriment. As a result, some of the battle scenes come off a bit stale, not as powerfully as I figure he’d intended. There are no Braveheart-esque blood fests.

Unfortunately, I found that the supporting cast, although including some great actors, were not given the chance to sparkle. Most supporting characters were given little more more than one-dimensional snapshots, created to support the Joan of Arc world. Faye Dunaway was a good villain, but that’s all I can say. She was at all times manipulative; she presented no other layers in this character. John Malkovitch as the Dauphin was, well, “Being John Malkovitch” — nothing new here, no revelations about his acting ability. Dustin Hoffman was good, but too subdued. Surprisingly, the best supporting performance was by Timothy West as Pierre Cauchon, Eveque de Beauvais: used, manipulated, struggling within himself and his religion. West’s performance was strong and complex.

The Messenger: A beautiful, lush movie filled with some great actors . A frequently striking but unbalanced performance from Besson’s now ex-wife, Milla Jovovitch. A bit quaint, a bit silly, and a bit simple minded. Besson’s style, and Jovovich’s ability to capture the camera and draw it in, save the film, making this an enjoyable, though imperfect, couple of hours. A fun movie, but not a great Joan of Arc film.

Note: This movie was viewed at Montreal’s newest movie mega-plex, the Paramount, which needs to be exposed for what it is: an ugly, over-done building lacking style. Closer inspection also reveals that the Paramount could be something of a death trap. Seriously, one exit for a theatre of about 500 seats? It took a good 10 minutes just to get everyone out of there. Shame, shame, shame. Too bad the seats are so damn comfortable.

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