Encased like spacemen in fireproof suits, Luc Besson and an assistant cameraman jumped into the flames to grab the best angle to film the flaming siege of Orlians. When the co-cameraman felt his eyebrows starting to singe off, he made a dash for safety. Besson stayed a full minute longer, filming with determined abandon, only to emerge at last like Satan smoking from his own $65 million inferno.
"I knew then I was in the presence of a certifiable madman," the cameraman later recalled.
Perhaps, but with "The Messenger: Joan of Arc," Besson has turned France's most revered heroine into a box-office hit and his most provocative film to date. Instead of a marauding Bruce Willis flying taxis in the 1997 "The Fifth Element" or the murderous government assassin of "La Femme Nikita," the 40-year-old French director now plunges into near-metaphysical speculations about war, the church and the tricky delusions of seemingly divine revelations.
This being Besson, however, the film is not without its fair share of headless necks gushing blood and other indelible glories of medieval battle. In one arresting sequence, Joan, played by Besson's ex-wife, Milla Jovovich, is shot in the chest with an arrow and falls straight backward off a siege ladder like a warring angel, dropping 30 feet into the arms of her soldiers on the ground below.
The origins of Besson's Joan have been no less bloody, with the secretive director coming under fire for plagiarism, selling out France's hallowed icon by hiring Hollywood stars, even shooting in English. Like it or not, Besson has a knack for fanning the flames swirling around his own martyr's pyre.
Kathryn Bigelow, the action director of "Strange Days" and "Blue Steel," currently has a lawsuit pending in Los Angeles Superior Court charging that Besson stole her script. Originally executive producer on Bigelow's 10-year project "Company of Angels," Besson unceremoniously pulled out when Bigelow insisted on casting Claire Danes, not Jovovich, as Joan. He took the financing with him and Bigelow's project collapsed. Shortly afterward, Besson announced his own Joan, with Jovovich in the lead role. The case is expected to drag on into the next millennium.
Besson's film is only the latest of at least 50 films about the Maid of Orléans made in the past 100 years, a regiment that includes Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg and Sandrine Bonnaire as Joan. For sheer psychological power, Danish director Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," with the mournful Renie Falconetti as the saint, tops them all, even though it was made in 1928 without sound, color or gory battle scenes.
When a pair of interviewers from the French weekly "L'Express" asked if he felt intimidated by so many precursors, Besson shot back, "Do you really think Modigliani was intimidated by Picasso just because both of them painted nudes?"
No one would confuse Besson with Modigliani or Picasso. Despite the overwhelmingly respectful reviews for "The Messenger," which opened last week in France, local critics have generally regarded Besson as a Hollywood sell-out, churning out the sci-fi special-effects workout "The Fifth Element" to beat the Americans at their own game.
With "The Messenger," the director thought he was doing the French a favor, bringing the nationalist icon home where she belongs. Another projected film with Mira Sorvino cast as Joan (to be directed by Ron Maxwell, the director of Turner Pictures' miniseries, "Gettysburg") has temporarily given way in the face of Besson's film with Sony and French distributor Gaumont. Still another American Joan of Arc project, a TV movie with Leelee Sobieski as Joan, withstood the Besson bulldozer, airing in May on CBS.
"I was furious that the Americans, who have massacred European subjects more often than not, had their eyes again on Joan of Arc," Besson told Le Monde's Jean-Michel Frodon. "Originally, I never dreamed of directing the film myself; I only wanted a French director to do it."
Besson's Gallic pride apparently didn't extend to the casting. John Malkovich plays the whining, indecisive Dauphin, the future French King Charles VII; Faye Dunaway is his scheming stepmother Yolande of Aragon; and Dustin Hoffman is cloaked as Joan's doubting conscience, mercilessly deflating her visionary certitudes, one by one, in her prison cell.
Despite so much acting firepower on hand, the director barely makes use of it. Malkovich, Dunaway and Hoffman -- not to mention French stars Pascal Greggory, Vincent Cassel and Tcheky Karo -- are relentlessly overshadowed by the 23-year-old Jovovich, the L'Orial model who dominates virtually every scene and camera angle.
"For a $65 million movie, it was essential to have Hollywood stars to bring in international audiences," explained Andrew Birkin, the British director-scriptwriter who shares script credit with Besson. "My chief fear was that Dustin Hoffman might tilt his scenes into something Shakespearean or overly pretentious, but I think he found the right balance, neither too casual nor too solemn."
So intense was the secrecy surrounding the shooting that neither Hoffman nor any of the other actors, except for Jovovich, saw the script in its entirety, said Birkin. Each actor saw only his own part.
"Not even the producer could take a copy of the script off the set," he said. During the filming of Charles VII's coronation scene in a town north of Paris, Besson himself chased away photographers trying to grab clandestine shots of Malkovich, Jovovich and the 800 extras convening in the soaring cathedral.
Besson's mania for keeping his production under the strictest wraps was due in part to the Bigelow lawsuit, but was also an effort to conceal the ending.
"The notion of introducing the Dustin Hoffman character as Joan's conscience grilling her in her cell was something none of the predecessors had," Birkin explained. "It was completely Milla's idea."
Jovovich contributed so much of the script, in fact -- including some of the more haunting visions -- that she should have shared writing credit, Birkin suggested.
In Jovovich's full-throttle portrayal, Joan burns up the scenery, eyes perpetually wide, as if she hasn't slept since seeing her sister murdered. "Perhaps Luc wanted her to play at such a high pitch so that her final absolution would be that much more of a relief," said Birkin. "Personally, I wouldn't have minded a bit more stillness in her character."
In Besson's version, Joan is as much motivated by the need to avenge her sister's brutal murder as she is by the call from God to liberate France. As much as the filmmakers tried to downplay the patriotic fervor behind the legend, the English are the very face of evil. If the French court, with its spineless intrigues and ultimate betrayal of its savior, are hardly worth saving, Joan battles for the right of peasants to control their own land.
"Anyone who comes to this film expecting a French 'Braveheart' will be disappointed," Birkin explained. "What Joan became embroiled in, and ultimately sacrificed to, was not so much a war against English invaders as a Valois family feud."
The virgin warrior has served as a "France for the French" symbol ever since the movement for canonization began in the 1870s following the country's humiliating defeat by the Prussians. Still today, the far-rightist National Front holds its yearly vigil at the foot of her gilt statue across from the Louvre as if waiting for the saint to come alive and kick the Arabic and African immigrants out of the country at last.
"We were extremely careful to avoid creating a film that could be construed as a paean to nationalism in any form," said Birkin.
The result is that Jovovich's Joan ends up deeply conflicted as she goes to meet the flames, unsure whether it was God or herself who authorized her to violate the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Did she have divine visions or merely earthbound obsessions mingling revenge, blood lust and the legitimate desire to liberate the peasants from the scorched earth devastation wrought by Birkin's "family feud"?
According to Birkin: "Unlike Shaw's 'Saint Joan,' where you can't escape crying at her sacrifice, this film ends more coldly, even brutally, and far more ambiguously, not triumphantly at all."