Retiring the Maid

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume III: Spring 2003
“Retiring the Maid: The Last Joan of Arc Movie”
By Peggy Maddox, Department of English, Fulbright College, University of Arkansas

Peggy Maddox, Department of English
Fulbright College, University of Arkansas


Joan of Arc’s fascination for cinematographers began in 1895. Until 1999, Joan was presented in

essentially religious and heroic terms, but then came Luc Besson’s The Messenger. Besson’s Joan,

portrayed by Milla Jovovich, is neither heroic nor saintly. Besson’s nontraditional interpretation of the historical facts, and his studied manipulation of archetypal imagery, redefine Joan of Arc as an unbalanced woman explicable by Freudian psychology. In stripping Joan of her heroism and final certainties, the Besson film works to extinguish her value as either religious icon or female role model. More than a review, the following essay on The Messenger is an analysis of the way in which this film completely reshapes the popular image of Joan of Arc.

Two Views of the Maid

[1] For close to 600 years Joan of Arc has been an inspiration to women and girls. She was an independent, unattached female who achieved success in a male arena thanks to exceptional ability and unshakable self-confidence. These qualities caught the attention and admiration of Christine de Pisan, France’s–and Europe’s–first professional woman writer and an early champion of women’s rights. Christine believed that women could be the moral and intellectual equals of men. In 1399 she wrote a defence of women in response to Jean de Meun’s misogynistic continuation of The Romance of the Rose, and she proved her own ability in the male realm by authoring an extremely popular treatise on warfare called Feats of Arms and of Chivalry. This treatise was addressed to men, but Christine believed that women too, in a crisis, should be capable of making sound military decisions. In her Book of the Three Virtues, she described the qualities necessary in a noblewoman who might be called upon to defend her estate in the absence of her husband:

…she should have a man’s heart, which means that she should know the laws of warfare and all things pertaining to them so that she will be prepared to command her men if there is need of it, knowing how to assault and defend, if the situation requires it….She should try out her defenders and ascertain the quality of their courage and determination before putting too much trust in them, to see what strength and help she can count on in case of need; she should make sure of this and not put her trust in vain or feeble promises. She must give special attention to what resources she would have until her husband could get there…(Willard, 150)

[2] Christine de Pisan fled her home in Paris in 1419 when the Burgundian party took the city and systematically slaughtered all the supporters of the disinherited Dauphin they could find. Nothing is heard of her until 1429 when the French victory at Orl’ans brought her out of retirement to write a sixty-one stanza poem in praise of Joan of Arc for having done what no man had been able to do:

Hee! quel honneur au f’menin
Sexe! Que [Dieu] l’ayme il appert,
Quant tout ce grant peuple chenin,
Par qui tout le règne ert desert,
Par femme est sours et recouvert,
Ce que cent mille hommes [fait] n’eussent,
[Oh! What honour for the female sex!/ It is perfectly obvious that God has special regard for it /when all these wretched people who destroyed the whole Kingdom /- now recovered and made safe by a woman, something that 5000 men could not have done] (Quicherat, I,13)

In that same year of 1429 an unknown Burgundian diarist, known to us only as “the Bourgeois of Paris,” described Joan in very different terms when she tried to regain Paris for Charles VII, calling her “une cr’ature en forme de femme…qui ’tait-ce, Dieu seul le sait!” [A creature in the shape of a woman… what it was, God knows.] (113). Thus began Joan’s bifurcated history as both divinely-inspired heroine and “unnatural” woman.

100 Years of Joan in Film

[3] Five hundred years later, in 1895, Joan’s remarkable career became a subject with cinematographers and continued in popularity all through the Twentieth Century.[1] Generally speaking, the old films present Joan in heroic terms, even while limiting her accomplishments by casting them in the light of patriarchal aims. One such aim served by both DeMille’s 1916 Joan the Woman and Fleming’s 1948 Joan of Arc, for example, is the insistence that the only proper sphere for woman is the home. In Visions of the Maid, film critic Robin Blaetz explores the uses that have been made of Joan of Arc in order to define the place of women in relation to war. According to Blaetz, Joan has been a popular cinematic image because she links romance to war, but at the same time sends the message that woman’s only role in war is self-sacrifice. Cinematographers are free to show Joan as a heroic figure because her success in the male sphere is brief and suitably punished at the end (Blaetz, 50). Although DeMille’s Joan, played by robust opera diva Geraldine Farrar, projects strength and courage, her heroism is attenuated by giving her a sweetheart at whom she casts loving glances in the thick of battle and because of whom she is captured. The viewer is left with the impression that the only reason she goes to the stake at all is because her lover failed to rescue her. In Blaetz’s words, DeMille’s Joan “dies for love rather than principle” (52). Thirty-two years later in the Fleming film, Joan’s death is depicted as a happy escape from complicated masculine concerns that are beyond Joan’s understanding. Underlying both films is the patriarchal warning that women who dare, for any reason, to forego their domestic destinies as servants to men and mothers of children, will be unhappy, unfulfilled, and tormented by regrets.

[4] Even when films about Joan of Arc treat her story in heroic terms, showing her in armor, on horseback, and leading troops of men, the heroism is qualified as “female heroism” and defined according to contemporary social concerns. For example, at the close of World War II there was a perceived social need to clear the workforce of women in order to make place for returning male veterans. In 1948, therefore, the kind of heroism that Joan stood for was “a retreat from battle and a return to conventional roles. (Blaetz, xii). In 1916, a time when women were on the verge of winning the vote and were demanding information about birth control, DeMille seems to have defined “female heroism” as sexual restraint. He said that his intention was to depict Joan as “a woman of flesh and blood, whose heroism was as much a victory over herself as a victory over the English”(Blaetz, 54).

[5] The religious aspect of Joan’s mission is both acknowledged and unquestioned in the early films. DeMille uses special effects to show Joan’s saintly and angelic guardians and to illustrate her powers of prophecy. Fleming bathes Ingrid Bergman in heavenly light as she dreamily receives revelations from her Voices. Even Preminger’s 1957 Saint Joan, based on Bernard Shaw’s irreverent play in praise of common sense, includes incidents that can be taken as miraculous proofs of Joan’s supernatural credentials. At Vaucouleurs Sir Robert de Baudricourt’s reluctant hens begin laying as soon as he agrees to help Joan on her way to Chinon. At Orl’ans a contrary wind changes to accommodate Joan’s entry into the besieged city. It is not until 1999 that a film maker casts doubt on the religious validity of Joan’s mission.

[6] The fact that Joan heard voices that she attributed to saints and angels was not a problem for earlier, less sophisticated audiences who were largely unacquainted with popularized notions of psychosis. When Ingrid Bergman communicates with her saints in the 1948 film, she can be seen merely as a very religious woman who has a vivid prayer life. Her motives and sanity are never questioned. Modern film makers and audiences, however, confronted with a character who hears voices that no one else can, tend to seek an explanation in schizophrenia. In 1999 movie audiences were introduced to a new kind of Joan of Arc who may very well define the Maid for the current generation the way that Ingrid Bergman did for hers. This is the Joan of Luc Besson’s international film epic The Messenger. Besson’s Joan, portrayed by Milla Jovovich, is neither heroic nor saintly. Symbolically speaking, she is not even a virgin. She is a clinical study in traumatic schizophrenia and hysteria whose death at the stake is unrelated to motives of religion, nationalism, or personal courage.

Besson’s Archetypal Subtext

[7] Luc Besson uses archetypal imagery and a non-traditional interpretation of the historical record to redefine Joan of Arc as an unbalanced woman explicable–and dismissible–by Freudian psychology. In the first ten minutes of The Messenger Besson manipulates his repertory of visual symbols to establish a sinister irrationality in Joan’s behavior and to undermine the spiritual aspects of her story. The symbols are then reiterated and supplemented throughout the film.[2]

[8] Although virtually nothing is known of the historical Joan before 1428, when she was already sixteen years old, The Messenger begins when Joan is still a child. Our first view of her is through the grill of a confessional. She is presented as a very young girl, eight or ten years old, who takes pleasure in running to confession several times a day. Besson seems to be saying that in the beginning, Joan was a happy little girl, with a harmless crush on religion. She tells the kindly parish priest about a certain “he” who is “beautiful” and who tells her to be a good girl. This vision could be taken as a part of a pleasant pre-trauma personality if it weren’t for what Besson shows us already exists in her mind. In choppily-edited, rapid sequences, we see the “he” of Joan’s vision, a boy of her own age. Because of his surly expression, he is not beautiful at all, but ugly and sinister. Dressed in a white gown, he sits sullenly on a stone throne in a dark wood, glowering. Sometimes all we see is his eye. Symbolically the eye is a window on the world, a link between mind and physical reality. The eye not only “sees” reality, but shapes it. In one of the most chilling scenes, late in the film, Joan is sitting on her bed after having been brutalized by her guards;[3] her women’s clothes have been taken from her and she is dressed again in men’s clothing. She seems to have no eyes at all. The pupils are altogether invisible; she seems to have two blank spaces where her eyes should be. She has lost touch with both the physical world and her own Self.

[9] The next archetypal image is introduced as Joan and the audience become aware of a sword lying in the grass. The sword is a powerful archetype and, like most symbols, is multivalent, capable of representing several different ideas. On one level the sword is an ancient phallic symbol of male domination. From the beginning of the modern era, its cruciform has had Christian connotations. Because of the brightness of the blade, the sword is emblematic of chastity. Its power to separate has the same association: a sword placed between Tristan and Iseult convinces King Mark of their sexual innocence. In alchemy the sword symbolizes purifying fire, another appropriate reading of the symbol in relationship to Joan. Functionally the sword is an instrument with the power to wound, and it is chiefly with this significance that Besson uses it. Joan is lying in the grass, arms spread in the position of crucifixion, legs straight and together. An aerial shot shows her in alignment with the sword; because of its shape and the position of her body, they are seen to be the same: Joan is a sword. Joan is an instrument of death. Indeed, it is this very sword that will, a few frames later, kill her sister.

[10] Besson next develops a series of weather motifs that dominate the film and shape the image of Joan as one who has an uneasy relationship with an evil divinity. After Joan brandishes her new-found sword at the heavens, the abode of God, the sky becomes filled with roiling clouds; the bright sunshine darkens and suddenly, inexplicably, Joan is no longer in the lush field of grass, but on a barren patch of ground in the darkening woods, before the empty stone throne of her vision. The scene is suggestive of a prehistoric, pre-Christian time. Thunder, symbolic of the voice of God, and lightning, His weapon, fill the stormy sky. We see a black wolf, frightening enough all alone, but soon joined by a pack, all of them black, the color of evil and death.

[11] The wolf, as Anthony Stevens points out in Ariadne’s Clue is “a complex symbol which…carries both positive and negative connotations” (352). Besson’s Joan in the darkening forest is straight out of a European folk tale. She could be Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. In such a setting, says Stevens, the wolf has “an infernal aspect” 352). Besson transfers this infernal aspect to Joan by having the fearsome animal accept her presence without menacing her. Although friendly wolves appear in some stories, Northern European mythology usually casts the wolf as an evil, dangerous creature that kills children and stalks battlefields and cemeteries in search of bodies to devour. Their companion in Germanic battlefield imagery is the raven, a creature that Besson features following the slaughter of the English at the taking of the Tourelles. Joan expresses fear as the wolves race towards her, but they are not attacking her; indeed, as they swirl around her on either side, she begins to run with the pack, instead of fleeing as one might expect. Made dangerous by the sword, Joan has also become a predator. Later in the film, when the grown-up Joan leads the French against the Tourelles at Orl’ans, Besson shows her afoot, in the midst of swarms of soldiers who stream past her, like so many human wolves, on their way to slaughter the English. Before introducing the traumatic event which will “explain” the phenomenon of the historical Joan of Arc, Besson primes his audience by showing in Joan a predisposition for hallucination and savagery. Joan and the pack reach the edge of her burning village at the same time; the wolves fall to pulling the flesh from dead villagers, while Joan rushes to her home with the sword in her hand.

[12] With the flames that destroy Domremy Besson introduces another motif that is usually associated with Joan: fire. Like the sword, fire has more than one symbolic meaning. Its significance in the iconography of Joan of Arc traditionally has to do with divinity, spiritual force, purification, and sacrifice. However, Besson uses it mostly as a symbol of the destructiveness of war and the violence of unbridled human passion. It is almost invariably in the background of his interior scenes, and frequently present in the exterior shots. A blazing fireplace forms the backdrop of the scene in which the young Joan refuses to eat or speak. A fire leaps behind her when she lies wounded at Orl’ans, dreaming of herself carrying a flaming torch down a dark passageway. In other scenes the fire is in the form of banks of candles or flaming arrows or an ignited battering ram. Fire blazes in the d’Arc fireplace behind the slovenly “English” who eat like beasts as their sweaty comrade murders and rapes Joan’s sister against the cabinet in which Joan is hiding. Outside thunder sounds, lightning flashes and rain falls.

[13] Rain, for Besson, is a symbol of heavenly displeasure; it falls whenever Joan experiences disappointment or when her life is about to change for the worse. Her moment of glory, the coronation at Reims, cuts abruptly to a grey scene in front of the walls of Paris where rain falls relentlessly, soaking her and her few remaining followers. It is not coincidence that rain is falling outside as Joan hides in the cabinet during the murder and rape of her sister. Nor is it simply the Bessonian penchant for creating sordid images of human depravity that gives us a scene in which a man rapes a dead woman.[4] Because the sister is insensible, Joan becomes the one who experiences the rape. She is the one face to face with the rapist as she watches through a slit in the rhythmically shaking cabinet door. By making Joan the object of the rape, if only symbolically, Besson deprives her from the outset of her most significant personal and religiously validating attribute: her virginity.[5]

[14] Before completing his preliminary set up, Besson adds another archetype not usually associated with Joan of Arc: blood. Like fire and sword, blood is a symbol with many meanings. It represents life and soul; red, it can be equated with passion. For Besson blood is savagery, vengeance, irrationality, the instincts. Our last glimpse of Joan as a child is before the altar where she has drunk blood-red sacramental wine in such a frenzy that she has spilled it all over her mouth and throat. Symbolically she is one with the corpse-eating wolves. This scene is reprised after the taking of the Tourelles when Jean d’Aulon handles her face with his bloody hands, leaving even her hair soaked with blood. With all these negative images, plus those of a bizarre Christ figure, Besson plants early in the film the idea that there is something ominous about Joan’s spirituality. The feeling is intensified with shots of churning clouds and a skewed belfry in which a huge bell swings without sounding.

[15] Thus in the first ten minutes of The Messenger, Besson establishes Joan as a deranged, sullied, vengeful individual with a warped religious strand to her personality. This concept is reinforced throughout the rest of the film by the acting of Milla Jovovich. After the rape, the child Joan goes to confession where she screams her hatred of the English. The priest says “Calm down, Joan!” These words become a refrain as Besson transforms the calm, stoic peasant maid of tradition into an edgy, shrill virago constantly on the verge of, or in the throes of, hysteria. [6]

Joan as Sinister Figure

[16] With Joan’s first appearance as an adult, Besson introduces another significant archetypal symbol, that of a hooded figure. A hood or cowl is often used in literary texts to suggest social apartness and the unknown. In film versions of A Christmas Carol the shrouded, hooded figure of Christmas-yet-to-be strikes terror in both Scrooge and the viewer. The mystery and danger of Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf is emphasized by having him hooded at his first appearance in The Lord of the Rings. A hooded figure often represents Death, as in drawings of the Grim Reaper. When Joan arrives at Chinon shrouded in a brown monkish cowl, at least some of these associations are at work in the viewer. To be sure, such a garment for travel was not unusual in Joan’s time. Fleming, for example, clothes Ingrid Bergman in a hooded cloak for her journey from Vaucouleurs to Chinon. The different effect lies in the fact that Fleming has already introduced us to his gentle Joan and he also permits us–and adoring villagers along the route–to see her face within the folds of the hood; Besson’s Joan remains completely hidden long after one might expect her to throw off the hood at the end of her journey. The timing makes Besson’s shrouded Joan into a ominous figure, disquieting to the bystanders in the film who cast frightened glances at it, and disturbing to the viewer who is impatient to see the grown-up Joan of Arc. This ominous brown cowl worn by Joan at Chinon also serves to identify her with the identically clothed and eerily ambiguous figure played by Dustin Hoffman in the final scenes at Rouen.

[17] Quite apart from the spoken script, therefore, Besson’s use of archetypal images loads the character of Joan with associations of evil, horror, and cruelty, all of which erode her value as a religious icon. In addition, his interpretation and manipulation of the historical records contribute to the erosion of her value as a model of the autonomous woman who transcends cultural stereotypes of female alienation, ineffectualness and irrationality.

History vs Artistic Licence

[18] While it can be argued that historical documents are open to any interpretation one might wish to give them, the records that we have of the historical Joan of Arc do present a fairly consistent picture of a personality more in tune with sanity and sociability than the one depicted in The Messenger. The Joan in this film has neither family ties nor female friendships. The historical Joan maintained a correspondence with her mother and father, both of whom attended the coronation in Reims. Two of her brothers joined her army and one of them, Pierre, was captured with her at Compiègne. Unlike Besson’s creation, the historical Joan was not always in the uneasy company of soldiers. During the fortnight she spent at Tours getting ready for Orl’ans, she made friends with the daughter of the man who painted her banners and later was instrumental in obtaining 100 ecus for her (Quicherat III, 154). At Orl’ans she lodged with the family of Jacques Boucher, treasurer of the Duke of Orl’ans and shared a bed with Mme Boucher and her young daughter Charlotte. These women helped Joan with her armor on at least one occasion (Quicherat III, 68). Evidence exists that Joan had friendly, even affectionate relationships with women of high rank, including some on the enemy side.[7]

[19] Joan’s ease in conversing with people of all classes probably had a great deal to do with her rapid mastery of the craft of warfare. At Orl’ans she spent time with Maîître Jean, a gunner of reputation who was from her own country of Lorraine. Twenty years after Joan’s death, deposing for the trial of rehabilitation, the Duke of AlenÎon told how Joan’s knowledge of artillery placement saved his life at Jargeau (Quicherat III, 96). Both AlenÎon and Dunois, son of the Duke of Orl’ans, attested to her military ability. To his credit, Besson does not present Joan as a mere military mascot futilely waving a sword or a banner as do Fleming, DeMille, and Duguay, for example. His Joan performs an amazing feat of horsemanship at Orl’ans, leaping the enemy defences and slashing the rope that holds their drawbridge. Proof that Joan of Arc possessed this kind of personal courage and daring can be found in the testimony of Jean d’Aulon. When the French forces hesitated to cross to the English side of the Loire to do battle, Joan was as much the leader as the redoubtable La Hire:

[La] Pucelle et La Hire passèrent tous deux chascun ung cheval en ung basteau de l’aultre part d’icelle isle, sur lesquelx chevaulx ilz montèrent incontinent qu’ilz furent pass’s, chascun sa lance en sa main. Et adonc qu’ilz apperceurent que lesdits ennemis sailloient hors de ladicte bastille pour courir sur leurs gens, incontinent ladicte Pucelle et La Hire, qui tousjours estoient audevant d’eulx pour les garder, couchèrent leurs lances et tous les premiers commencèrent à fraper sur lesdits ennemis… (Quicherat III, 214).

[The Maid and La Hire both crossed from the other part of that island in separate boats, each with a horse; they mounted their horses as soon as they had crossed, each with his lance in his hand. And when they saw that the enemy had come out of the bastile [the Augustins] in order to charge their men, the Pucelle and La Hire, who were constantly in front of them [their troops] to protect them, immediately couched their lances and at once began to strike the enemy…]

While there is much in the record that is ambiguous and open to various interpretations, there is still much to indicate that the historical Joan of Arc was a woman of intelligence who, possessing unusual gifts of leadership, held her own in a male-dominated world, if only for a short time.

Thoroughly Manic Milla

[20] Besson’s Joan is barely sane. Milla Jovovich plays her as an unbalanced woman who is always on the brink of an hysterical outburst. Only occasionally does she speak rationally. Such moments are striking for their straightforward sanity, as when she chides the red-headed Englishman for calling her a whore, and when she tells Dunois to lend a hand with the siege tower or go back to bed. Mostly, however, it is difficult to feel sympathy for the Jovovich Joan in the way one could with Ingrid Bergman’s Joan or even Jean Seberg’s. Although at 33 she was too old for the part, Ingrid Bergman brought sincerity and believable saintliness to the role. Jean Seberg, who was the right age, has been castigated by critics for her lack of acting ability, but her youth and beauty are very appealing. [8] Her delivery at least has the virtue of being coherent. The Jovovich Joan prefaces her message to the Dauphin at Chinon with a jerky, incoherent recitation of her visionary experiences as a child. Her bizarre “narration” is intercut with images of bells, clouds, and a repellent, bug-eyed man dressed like Jesus. The message itself, however, that she has been sent to take Charles to his coronation, is delivered in clear, comprehensible sentences.

[21] At Orl’ans the Jovovich Joan flies into a rage when Dunois meets her on the wrong side of the river. Inside Orl’ans, she slams a window shut in the faces of townspeople hungry for a sight of her, and when Dunois and the other captains do not include her in their battle plans, she screams at them and strikes LaHire across the face for swearing. [9] Back in her room, she hacks furiously at her hair with a dagger because Dunois called her a “girl.” [10] After the taking of the Tourelles, her face slimy with blood, she emotes with heavy breathing, spastic facial tics, and incoherent speech. What clever and courageous actions she accomplishes during the battle are cast in terms of her ignorance and her tendency to rush into situations without thinking about consequences. Even in the trial scenes, which include Joan’s actual words from the transcripts, Besson manages to make Joan come across as a pitiful, hysterical victim of mental illness.

The Bessonian Vision

[22] Some historical inaccuracy in making a film about actual events can hardly be avoided. Telescoping time, for example, or placing widely-scattered events in one location, are common distortions of the facts that do not necessarily alter the artistic truth of a depiction. Some of Besson’s tinkering with historical fact is of no great consequence. Transforming Burgundian raiders into English renegades, for example, does not change the fact that Joan’s village was attacked during the Hundred Years’ War. The change even makes events less confusing for viewers who may not be not clear as to the role of the Burgundian French in the English take-over of France. What does matter to the concept of Joan of Arc as a religious icon, however, is Besson’s invention of the necrophilic rape of her sister by pillagers. This invented incident provides a psychological motive for Joan’s psychotic hatred of the English and, ultimately, establishes grounds on which to discount the religious basis of her mission altogether. Then, by jumping directly from the childhood trauma to Joan’s arrival at Chinon, Besson excludes the context in which the historical Joan of Arc persuaded the community at Vaucouleurs of her divine mission as prelude to obtaining an escort to the Dauphin’s court. Besson’s Joan is a therefore a solitary, anti-social figure who emerges from the darkness with no better credentials than her own incoherent description of her visions.

[23] In his interpretation of the historically documented facts of Joan’s life, Besson also exercises considerable artistic licence. He portrays the Grand Inquisitor, Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais–by most historical accounts a self-serving hypocrite with a particular animus against Joan– as kindly and soft-spoken, concerned only to save Joan’s soul and body. [11] Besson apparently wishes to emphasize Joan’s irrationality by depicting her adversary as a good and patient man. He uses the same device in the scenes before the battle at Orl’ans, contrasting Joan’s hysterical displays with the slow, patient utterances of Dunois and her keeper Jean d’Aulon. Nevertheless this “kindly” Cauchon deceives Joan into signing a recantation by promising to hear her confession with no intention of doing so. Unable to confess to Cauchon, Joan’s only spiritual outlet is to confess to the hallucinatory Hoffman character. As a matter of history, Joan of Arc was permitted to receive the sacrament before her execution. Like the invented rape of Joan’s sister, the refused confession provides Besson another opportunity to undermine the religious significance of Joan’s life.

Ding Dong, the Saint is Dead

[24] It is in the trial sequence, interspersed with conversations with the cowled Hoffman figure, that Besson completes his work of discrediting Joan of Arc as a religious figure. Once or twice, speaking the words of the actual trial transcripts, Milla Jovovich responds to her accusers confidently and rationally, quite in the spirit of the written record. For the most part, however, even Joan’s own words are delivered in such a way as to inspire doubts about her sanity. For example, responding to questions about the banner, Jovovich falls into the spastic mode with which she tried to convey her visions to the Dauphin at their first meeting. We get the clear impression that she is lying about having preferred her banner to her sword. [12] Back in her cell, when she isn’t being beaten by her gaolers, she must submit to the verbal and psychological abuse of the Hoffman character. Under his barrage of sarcastic accusations, Joan rants and grovels, defending with waning conviction her belief that she is God’s messenger.

[25] Before her capture, in one of her few lucid conversations with Jean d’Aulon, Joan seems to have a Jungian concept of the Self. [13] When Jean asks her if it is possible that the “voices” are in fact coming from her own mind, she responds without anger: “They are me. That’s how God speaks to me. You could hear them too, if you would listen.” In her conversations with the Hoffman figure, Joan finally relinquishes the belief that she was the instrument of a divine mission. At his implacable prodding, she confesses to having misinterpreted ordinary happenings as “signs.” She confesses to having been “vain, stubborn, selfish, murderous, and cruel.” When there is nothing left of her visions, her cause, or her integrity, he gives her absolution. Instantly the scene jumps to the terrified face of Joan at the stake. We see her engulfed in flames, her feet on fire, and her burning clothing fluttering from her charred body. Instead of a crucifix, thought to have been the last object that the dying Joan looked upon, the final frame shows an empty cross, which recalls the empty pagan throne in the woods. Behind the uninhabited cross, visible through the smoke, is the blank blue sky. The story is finished. The Heavens are empty and the misguided, arrogant, vindictive peasant girl is dead.


[26] With a systematic use of archetypal visual imagery, selective manipulation of the historical record, and an hysterical acting style on the part of Jovovich, Luc Besson succeeds in stripping Joan of Arc of her significance as a religious icon and neutralizing her value as a model of the capable woman. For viewers of The Messenger, the Maid of Orl’ans has been “explained” in terms that a largely nonreligious public can accept: her already flawed personality was traumatized by a childhood sexual incident; her voices were symptoms of schizophrenia, and her death was an unfortunate result of her insanity. Thus Joan is explained in terms of twentieth century pop psychology. The Messenger becomes a medieval A Beautiful Mind and viewers come away with a notion that fifteenth century mystic Joan of Arc can be understood as a kind of John Nash who hallucinated about saints and angels instead of CIA agents.

[27] After this powerful demystification of Joan of Arc by Besson, one can only speculate as to whether the Maid of Orl’ans will continue to attract film-makers in the twenty-first century. Two major directors, Steven Spielberg and Ron Maxwell, announced plans for filming Joan’s story and had proceeded as far as casting in the year 2000, but at this writing, neither film has been released. [14] Perhaps Spielberg and Maxwell sense that audiences need time to recover from Besson’s clinical devaluation of the Maid before they can appreciate films that present her again in heroic terms. Or, with the United States sending occupying forces to the Middle East, perhaps the image of a Warrior Maid fighting to rid her country of invaders is not politically timely.

[28] In stripping Joan of her sanity and her final certainty that her mission was from God, the Besson film has, at least for the moment, extinguished her cinematic value as either a religious icon or as a role model for women. If her image is to be rehabilitated in the future, it will probably be at the hands of a director who is interested in exploring the historical Joan of Arc as a mystic, a genuine military leader, and an autonomous woman who was at least as sane as the men who followed her.


[1] The Internet Movie Data Base lists Joan of Arc films for 1895, 1899, 1928, 1948, 1954, 1962, 1988, and 1999 (two). Robin Blaetz lists 33 Joan of Arc-related films that she finds worthy of comment. (249-261)

[2] Many of the following interpretations of various symbols and archetypes come from my readings of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Anthony Stevens, and the articles in Man, Myth, and Magic. Some derive from my own conclusions based on readings of myth and literature.

[3] Whether or not she has been raped is not clear.

[4] Besson’s body of work is inspired by a sordid vision of the depths of human depravity. La Femme Nikita is about a woman who must learn to be an efficient and brutal killer. Leon/The Professional, features a sympathetic assassin and a deranged murderer who leaves nauseating carnage in his wake. The Fifth Element presents a dystopic future in which human life is debased and snuffed out by a variety of sadistic techniques. It is hardly surprising that Besson would assign Joan of Arc the persona of a killer.

[5] Most people probably assume that Joan of Arc was canonized as a martyr or warrior saint, but that is not the case. She was canonized in 1920 “not for her patriotism or military valour, but for the virtue of her life and her faithfulness to the prompting of God’s grace.” (Penguin 187). Henri Guillemin quotes Jean Guitton’s succinct caveat against referring to Joan of Arc as a “martyr”:

“Joan cannot be considered a martyr, in the strict sense of the term, by Catholic thinking, for it was a regular Church court, in a regular trial, that condemned her to death…” (257).

[6] I have counted at least eight utterances of this plea for Joan to calm down. Obviously the effect is to establish more firmly the idea of her irrational and hysterical nature.

[7] At her trial Joan spoke of affectionately of “her Queen,” (the wife of Charles VII), and the three ladies who looked after her during the months that she was the prisoner of Jean of Luxembourg. She said that if she had been willing to put on women’s clothing to please anyone, it would have been for those women. (Brasillach 68).

[8] Jean Seberg, a seventeen year old unknown, did not do badly, considering that her only previous experience had been in high school plays. In my view, her acting does not seem any worse than that of veteran actor Richard Widmark, who was woefully miscast as Shaw’s childish Dauphin. Besides, Jean Seberg deserves some kind of recognition for the most realistic burning at the stake. During filming, something went wrong with the gas jets ringing the pyre. When Seberg is shown recoiling from the flames, she is actually being burnt.

[9] All of these incidents can be supported by the historical record. Joan did express displeasure at being brought to Orl’ans on what she considered to be the “wrong” side of the river. She did try to discourage the common people from regarding her as a miracle-worker. She did object to swearing, especially La Hire’s, and she was often excluded from important councils of war. My objection is not to the incidents per se, but to the sustained hysteria that pervades them.

[10] From this point onward, Joan’s hair enters a phase of changing color. As a child and at her first meeting with Charles, Joan’s hair is long and blonde. After the haircut it is long and blonde in her visions and dreams, but short and variously blonde, red, black, and streaked in “real life.” Hair too is an archetypal symbol, but Besson seems to be using it as an indicator of the state of her soul, rather in the way medical doctors analyze hair to discover physical abnormalities. In the thick of battle, Joan’s hair is red. When she is in a state of hysteria, it tends to be streaked blonde and black. As she enters the courtroom at Rouen, her hair is very dark; at the stake it is still dark, but highlighted by the flames.

[11] Cauchon was a worldly cleric who held multiple benefices and accumulated a huge fortune from them and from his diplomatic service to the English crown.

He pursued Joan from the time of her capture in May 1430 until he finally succeeded in concluding her purchase about six months later.

[12] I have to concede that, like Besson, I find it hard to accept at face value Joan’s often quoted assertion that she never killed anyone. Consider, for example, Jean d’Aulon’s description quoted in š19 above. Another indication that Joan had more than a passing acquaintance with the use of weapons is her praise of a sword that she took from a Burgundian. She liked it because it was good for “bonnes buffes et bons torchons” (Brasillach 52) “bonas alapas et bonos ictus” (Quicherat I, 77) i.e., thrusting and striking horizontally. Joan probably was lying. What I object to in Jovovich’s performance is the deranged manner in which she conveys the lie.

[13] According to Jung, the concept of God originates in the Self (Stevens, Archetypes 223; On Jung, 248, 249).

[14] The two films are Ron Maxwell’s The Virgin Warrior with Mira Sorvino as Joan and Stephen Spielberg’s The Company of Angels with Sinead O’Connor as Joan. In her “filmography” section, Blaetz describes the Maxwell film as being in postproduction in 2000 and Maxwell offers the script for sale on his current website. However, as of this writing, to my knowledge, neither film has been released.

Works Cited

Brasillach, Robert, ed. Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc. (Librairie Gallimard, 1941). Paris: Editions de Paris, 1998.

Blaetz, Robin. Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Guillemin, Henri. Tr. Harold J. Salemson. Jeanne dite “Jeanne d’Arc”. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1970). New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.

Internet Movie Database, The.

Joan of Arc. Dir. Christian Duguay. Script: Michael Alexander Miller and Ronald Parker. Joan: Leelee Sobieski. Canadian Broadcasting Company. 1999.

Joan of Arc. Dir. Victor Fleming. Script: Maxwell Anderson and Andrew Solt. Joan: Ingrid Bergman. RKO. 1948.

Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris à la fin de la guerre de Cent Ans 1405-1449.Paris: Union G’nerale d’Editions, 1963.

Man, Myth, and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural.

24 vols. Richard Cavendish, ed. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1970.

Messenger, The: The Story of Joan of Arc. Dir. Luc Besson. Script: Luc Besson and Andrew Birkin. Joan: Milla Jovovich. Leeloo Productions/Gaumont. 1999.

Penguin Dictionary of Saints. Donald Attwater, ed. London: Penguin, 1965.

Quicherat, Jules. Procès de condamnation et de r’habilitation de Jeanne d’Arc dite La Pucelle. 5 vols. Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, 1965. (Libraires de la Soci’t’ de l’Histoire de France. Paris, 1841-1849).

Saint Joan. Dir. Otto Preminger. Script. Graham Greene after Bernard Shaw. Joan: Jean Seberg. United Artists. 1957.

Stevens, Anthony. Ariadne’s Clue. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998.

_____. Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self. Quill. New York, 1983.

_____. On Jung. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, 1984.