Eurostar October 1999

Two visionaries
by Bertrand Gamellier

Table of contents: Luc Besson puts Joan of Arc on screen again

Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices and Luc Besson seems similarly inspired: after science-fiction, thrillers and sea depths, the only French director able to rival the Americans brings the saga of Joan of Arc to the big screen.

It's Besson's eighth film and the shepherdess from Domrémy's fortieth - since the earliest days of cinema, Joan of Arc has haunted the imagination of film-makers. In her time she has been played by the inspired Renée Falconetti (who after working on Carl Dreyer's film in 1928 became a nun), the Swedish Ingrid Bergman (1954) and the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire (1994). Now the young woman who drove the English out of France returns in the guise of Milla Jovovich, the Ukrainian top model. Shel be back on screen listening to her heaven-sent mission, leaving her flocks, donning armour like a man and brandishing the standard like a knight, although the story has an unhappy ending, as Joan of Arc, or the Maid of Orleans, entered the French pantheon in a blaze of glory at the stake.

All the right ingredients

Her story has all the elements needed to appeal to the maker of The Big Blue - sound and fury, spectacle, inspiration, epic scale and emotion. Yet initially Luc Besson wasn't interested in directing the film: he only wanted to produce it. With a script written by Andrew Birkin (brother of Jane, colleague of Kubrick and author of Cement Garden), the film was going to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow (director of Point Break) and two other actresses were in the running for the title role - Claire Danes and Winona Ryder. Strangely enough, in 1997, the project never really got off the ground. Luc Besson, who was busy producing Taxi, waited. After Taxi finally came out, he grew tired of waiting and took command himself. He gave the lead to the woman who became his wife (and more recently his ex-wife), Milla Jovovich. Her hair was cut and a "natural-look" make-up was designed for her, transforming the Ukrainian actress from the futuristic Venilia, star of The Fifth Element, into a 15th-century heroine.

The film was a big gamble for Gaumont, the producers. To start with, it was about French history, subject matter you can't take too many liberties with. Then there's the fact that the French film industry needs high-quality, mega-productions to prove it hasn't been totally crushed by American competition. And lastly a film about the Middle Ages is not an easy proposition to market, especially to a younger audience, many of whom have a weakness for special effects.

Standard bearers

Timeline: Joan of Arc in Hollywood, 1916 - 1999

The publicity machine was launched at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with a poster depicting a bloody sword planted in the French soil. Besson himself put the finishing touches to the script and filming started in June. The choice of cast was eclectic but inventive - John Malkovich plays Charles VII, Faye Dunaway Yolande d'Aragon, Vincent Cassel Gilles de Rais, Dustin Hoffinan the confessor and Pascal Greggory is the Duc d'Alençon. Besson began work in Normandy, and then went to the Czech Republic to film some spectacular battle scenes, returning to the Dordogne for its castles and finishing off in the cathedral at Sées (Perche) for the scene where Joan crowns the King of France (this actually took place at Rheims). The problems involved in finding medieval castles unspoiled by electric cables and avoiding TV aerials are obvious. Filming the scene where Joan is burnt alive at Rouen in 1431 was even harder. But these hurdles have all been surmounted.

Astonishing saga, modest budget

Luc Besson has highlighted the film's spectacular aspect thanks to his graphic vision. He was helped by friends like Jan Kounen (director of Dobermann) and Gérard Krawczyk (Taxi), who directed the secondary team. The maker of Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1987) and Nikita (1991) has re-examined one of the fundamental myths of modern France. With a budget of 50 million dollars (a modest sum compared to some Hollywood blockbusters), Besson has created an amazing saga devoid of clichés and truisms. Armies clash, men die, kingdoms totter, and at the centre of it all stands a proud 19-year-old girl inspired by God. At the age of 40, Luc Besson has finally found his true heroine.