Joan on the Screen: Burned Again?

Kathryn Norberg, February 2000

It was not the quincentennial of the birth, death, or rehabilitation of Joan of Arc. It wasn't even the anniversary of her canonization. Still, 1999 saw the release of two films devoted to the life and martyrdom of the 15th-century saint. In May 1999, CBS aired a four-hour miniseries entitled Joan of Arc, starring teenaged Leelee Sobieski. In November 1999, Sony Pictures premiered its $60 million Joan epic, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, directed by Luc Besson and starring the ex-model and sometime rock singer Milla Jovovich. Neither was the first attempt to film the life of the Maid of Orleans. There have been at least 20 movies about Joan, five of which are well known and available either from video rental stores or foreign cinema dealers like Facets in Chicago: Carl Dreyer's silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928); Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman (USA, 1948); Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (USA, 1957); and my personal favorite, Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la pucelle (France, 1993). All (with the exception of Dreyer's film) have been critical or financial disasters. Most were both.

Why then did both CBS and Sony Pictures decide to tempt fate and make Joan films? Joan does have a devoted following. A quick search of the Internet reveals at least a dozen Joan web sites, most devoted to defending the "real" Joan. Still, Joan's fans are too few to prompt CBS to devote four hours of prime time to the warrior saint. What probably appealed to CBS executives was Joan's ability to bring together three tried and true cinema genres—the woman's film, the combat movie, and the courtroom drama. Something for everyone—that is what Joan's story offers and that is what TV is about.

But CBS producers were not aiming at audience appeal alone. They had high historical aspirations. On the excellent CBS web site (http://www.cbs.com/network/tvshows/mini/joandarc/ja_01_home.html), Executive Producer Ed Gernon describes how hard the production team worked to get the historical details right. Plenty of research by lawyer Michael Miller—as long as "six to eight weeks"—went into the initial script. The production team itself, according the Gernon, "did a terrific amount of research. . . . I approved all the swords. I looked at all the wardrobe."

To my inexpert eye, Gernon did his job: costumes, battle scenes, and most of the details look accurate. But Gernon failed to take a good look at Joan herself. I don't mean her costume, even though it dwarfs her and makes her look like a kid in her father's football uniform. I mean the character. Rather than striving to present us with a more compelling, more interesting, or even a more accurate Joan, the CBS producers tried to create a more likeable Joan. Joan rides into battle but frets over the bloodshed. Joan loves children and sets up a soup kitchen for them in war-torn Vaucouleurs. Joan tells the war-weary peasants to "start rebuilding their lives." Joan organizes a kind of public works project to bring the people "together" and "give them hope." The CBS Joan appears to be running for public office.

Not Besson's Joan. She is completely apolitical. She rides into battle not to save France but to resolve her personal problems. Joan is afflicted with something akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome after seeing her sister murdered by the English. Doubt plagues her and she only gets help in the last half hour of the film when Dustin Hoffman, dressed up like Obi Wan Kenobi, suddenly materializes as her conscience/therapist. According to Besson, this scene defines the film: "In the first history book I read, I got the idea (for the film) . . . a debate between Joan and her conscience."1 Besson's Joan is conflicted, to use the pop-psychological categories that underpin the film, but she is no religious nut. Besson's Joan is not Catholic; she is not even Christian. In The Messenger, Besson serves up the same kind of new age hokum—mysterious strangers, slow-motion cloud photography, and laser beams—that he dished out in his sci-fi film, The Fifth Element. This saves The Messenger from the sappy religious imagery—clouds part and a woman (Saint Margaret, I presume?) bends down from heaven—that afflicts the CBS miniseries. In The Messenger, Joan's mystical states are refreshingly unsentimental. But they are also weirdly evocative, as one Le Monde columnist remarked recently, of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.2

So why did Besson make this film? He told Le Monde that he made it because his then-wife Milla Jovovich looks like Joan and is "sexy" like Joan. This is a pretty thin premise on which to base a two-and-a-half-hour movie, especially one about a canonized virgin. It is also profoundly ahistorical. Did Besson ever consider that 500 years separate Joan from Jovovich? Did Besson ever wonder if late 20th-century pop psychology was the best way to understand a 15th-century girl? Probably not, because Besson seems indifferent to the passage of time and blissfully unaware of the differences between our world and Joan's.

In a recent contribution to this journal, Robert Rosenstone chastised previous Perspectives reviewers for treating "history" and "film" as identical genres.3 He complained that the reviewers judged films and scholarly books by the same yardstick: accuracy. Rosenstone went on to claim that films do present a vision of the past—an interpretation, if you like—but they must do so by inventing characters and rearranging chronology. My complaint about The Messenger is not that it is inaccurate. That it certainly is, for Besson gives only a nod to the historical record. My concern is that Besson doesn't seem to be aware of history. He has no argument, no vision of what Joan was like (beyond being sexy), and no interest in exploring life during the Hundred Years' War. The Messenger doesn't have a message.

But it needn't be so. As Rosenstone pointed out, some directors do have an argument about the past. One such director is Jacques Rivette, creator of the four-hour 1993 French film, Jeanne la pucelle. Rivette has a historical vision: Joan was, as the title indicates, just a girl. This sounds trite in an American context, but it is powerful in a French one. Various French political movements have appropriated Joan over the years and remade her to suit their cause. Most recently, the ultra right-wing French party, the National Front, has taken Joan as their mascot and turned her into a symbol of racial purity and chauvinistic nationalism. Rivette wanted to strip Joan of all these accretions and restore her to her 15th-century context. Rivette's Joan is not apolitical; she is a rebuke to the far right. She is also partly fictional. Like every other director, Rivette invents characters, rearranges the chronology, and makes up dialogue. He even presents his film as a documentary, with characters addressing the audience directly and commenting (albeit in the words that they used at Joan's trials) about her actions. This device is not accurate but it is historical. It invites us to see Joan as her contemporaries did and to speculate on her motives and marvel at her ability to convince people of her authenticity. Rivette doesn't try to explain Joan. He just tries to recreate the world in which she lived.

In the process of re-creation, Rivette shows us aspects of the Middle Ages we might otherwise have overlooked. Rosenstone emphasized that film (unlike history books) is a visual medium. It is also an aural one. My favorite scene in Jeanne la pucelle occurs near the beginning. Joan, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, is on her way from Vaucouleurs to Blois to meet the Dauphin. Deep in Burgundian or enemy territory, she and her escort of four hardened soldiers stop for the night in a ruined castle. Joan quickly falls asleep, proof, her companion Jean de Meun explains in the film (as he did at her 1456 rehabilitation trial) of her prophetic powers. But the soldiers lie awake, terrified that the Burgundians will suddenly descend upon them. Utter silence reigns, but the soldiers still hear footsteps, twigs breaking, and ominous rustling. Have we really appreciated how profoundly quiet it was in the Middle Ages? When you see Rivette's film, you do. Have historians noticed how this stillness made the world seem terrifying and yet filled with the divine? Have many historians paid much attention to what Alain Corbin calls the "aural landscape"?4

Rivette's film succeeded in enriching our understanding of the past. What it did not do is succeed at the box office. Like all the Joan films before it, Jeanne la pucelle was a commercial disaster. Besson's The Messenger appears to be going the same way. The CBS Joan of Arc miniseries did get nominated for 13 Emmy awards, but otherwise the cinematic curse on Joan continues. But fear not. New Joans are on their way. Ron Maxwell, the director of Gettysburg, has a Joan movie in development, which may star Mira Sorvino and that will not be, he promises, "as silly, heartless, mean-spirited, small-minded, and phony" as the Besson Messenger.5 Maybe he will succeed. Or maybe Joan will be burned yet again.

For a complete list of the Joan of Arc films (and some related film clips), visit http://dc.smu.edu/Joan_of_Arc/movielis.html

—Kathryn Norberg teaches at UCLA. She specializes in European women's history and early modern France. Her publications include Rich and Poor in Grenoble, 1600–1814 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985).

Notes

1. Interview with Luc Besson, Le Monde, 27 October, 1999.

2. Le Monde, 18 December, 1999.

3. Robert Rosenstone, "Reel History with Missing Reels?" Perspectives (November 1999):19.

4. Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, Martin Thom trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

5. See Maxwell's fiery review of The Messenger at his home page, http://www.ronmaxwell.com.