Magazine article History Today

Joan of Arc -- the Messenger

Magazine article History Today

Joan of Arc -- the Messenger

Article excerpt

Sony TriStar Director: Luc Besson Certificate 15

THE FRENCH ECCLESIASTICS delegated by the occupying English powers to the thankless chore of determining whether Joan of Arc was an impostor or a heretic guided by Satan have much in common with the new priesthood of popular culture. In Joan of Arc (released in the United States as The Messenger) director Luc Besson attempts to prove what even the best prosecuting clerics of her day could not: that Joan was a demented, misled, hysterical, confused and guilt-ridden phony. But even with the power and money of Sony and Gaumont behind him, he is no more convincing than the inquisitors of Rouen.

In the trial transcripts of 1429, under a months-long cross-examination, Joan herself identified and described encounters with the saints Margaret and Catherine. These filmmakers are not interested in taking Joan at her own words, nor in the testimony of anyone else who knew her as recorded in voluminous accounts in the trial of rehabilitation conducted just twenty years after her execution. Nor is any allusion made to the significance of these particular women saints to the French and English societies of this era. Could an impressionable young girl forge an identification with these female role models from antiquity, who renounced marriage for spiritual calling and salvation? And why no mention of St Michael, the male saint who she claimed to have seen and heard? Did it matter to Joan that St Michael was the protector of the French people? That her countrymen were resisting a year-long English siege at the shrine of St Michael himself at Mont St Michel? The difference between the story of a young girl who claimed to have been visited by specific saints and one who is transfixed by thrashing winds, rushing clouds and a wolf pack on the hunt is the difference between the real Joan of Arc and the fictitious marionette of this film.

The film begins with the child Joan witnessing the brutal murder and rape (in that order) of her sister Catherine by marauding English soldiers. There is no evidence that this ever happened and, in any case, it was not English soldiers who ransacked Domremy, but Burgundians from the other side of the River Meuse.

Aside from the now-antiquated notion that an artist should strive for the truth, this matters because the filmmakers are desperate to provide the young Joan with `motivation': revenge! This graphically filmed scene (qualifying the film for an 15 rating in Britain, thereby keeping young people away from a story about a young person) is followed by a scene with a priest in which she rails at God for permitting these atrocities. There were many horrors that took place in the Hundred Years' War, and much to cause rage at both God and man, but this made-up incident wasn't one of them.

When a film is founded on a lie, and a perverse one at that, nothing that follows can be trusted. In the case of Joan of Arc, a true story of love and sacrifice, of dedication and faith, is turned to a false one of hatred, bitterness, fury and revenge.

This Joan, psychically removed from the medieval universe in which she lived, never utters the names of the Virgin Mary or of Jesus. In reality, she had their names sewn into her banner, regularly prayed, exhorted others to pray and regarded her own virginity as crucial to her mission. The question of her virginity, so significant to her contemporaries, is not even alluded to in this film. In the fifteenth century, all believers knew that Satan could not enter into the body of a virgin. That may seem quaint to us, but it made all the difference to those who considered giving Joan their support and those who would later seek to condemn her.

The sets and costumes indicate a film set in the early fifteenth century, but nothing in the characters and belief system of this portrayal steps out of the pop culture of the late twentieth century. If the intention is allegory, why set it in its own physical context? …

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