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Joan of Arc: Filming a myth called Joan

JOAN OF Arc is a name that conjures a hundred images, all at once. A simple French peasant lass heard the call of Lord to help her king fight the English in the 15th century, but was eventually convicted of being a heretic and burnt alive. Her dedication to the cause, her loyalty to her emperor, her courage, and her fortitude form a collage of a peculiar life whose climax seems to end at a tiny stone at Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral.

An inscription there says with pride, tinged with a sense of sorrow, that it was at the church that Joan was first canonised of sorts, though centuries later. The Vatican termed her a saint as late as 1920.

But Joan could perhaps never rid herself of controversy. It plagued her with disastrous consequences in her very short lifetime. And, it continues to disturb her in her death. The French director, Luc Besson's latest celluloid offering, ``Joan of Arc'' - now playing in India - freezes disputes and debates as it does a brilliantly paced and stunning epic. The visuals are arresting, and the tempo is just breathtaking. Milla Jovovich as Joan is pretty convincing.

Yet, Besson's frames of bloody sympathy and disarming innocence have been whirring along a bumpy path obstructed by charges and counter- charges.The American movie-maker, Kathryn Bigelow, was to have made ``Joan of Arc'' with Besson's support and Japanese money. When Besson's then companion, Jovovich, refused to play Joan, the man himself pulled out, and with him went the funding as well.

(Besson had problems with Warren Beatty too, over his marine life picture, ``The Big Blue'' and with a scriptwriter over ``The Professional''.)

However, with ``Joan of Arc'', things got a little too unpleasant for Besson. When a stuntman died during the first weeks of the shooting somewhere in the Czech Republic, the director is said to have been so seriously affected that he went into a depression, appearing on the set only occasionally to shout orders.

Although, he got out being the recluse he was, his hope that his quintessentially French yet internationally well-known story, using English dialogues, would break through cultural barriers, has been shattered. ``Joan of Arc'' has been savaged by critics, who felt that it was historically inaccurate.

But, so were Victor Fleming's 1948 ``Joan of Arc'' (with Ingrid Bergman) and Otto Preminger's later ``Saint Joan.'' There is so much of myth around the girl that it could be almost impossible to sift fact from fiction. Besson says that he tried to understand and portray the human being that Joan was, rather than document the history of her times or even the fantasy that has been handed down from generation to generation. He, however, insists that the armaments, battle scenes and trials were thoroughly researched.

Yet, perhaps, the truth, the absolute truth about Joan can never be deciphered. It has been a taboo subject for far too long, and the French themselves - who might have generally extolled her as an icon of all that was virtuous - have been divided: sections of them have hated her for her support to anti-intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. And, not to forget that it was not the English but the French, her own countrymen, who captured her, sold her and condemned her to death.

Beyond these arguments is the accusation that ``Joan of Arc'' is hardly French in flavour. Often, such a charge stems from the fact that a French film can be French only if it is voiced in French. But Besson contends that there can be no doubt about the Frenchness of his work.It was financed by Gaumont. All the historical advisers were French. Many of the cast and technical crew were French. ``The point is to export French culture and defend it, not the language'', the director is firm.

Admittedly, ``Joan of Arc'' follows the pattern of classical French cinema. It is in three parts: Childhood, maidenhood and the woman warrior. The tale begins and ends with a confession from the protagonist, and there are many scenes where one might believe one is watching an essentially French work.

``Joan of Arc'' is sure to get Besson further in the way the world thinks about him, a process that began with the 1997 ``The Fifth Element''. Considered the French equivalent of Steven Spielberg, he has a reputation for creating fast-paced, ultra- stylish, and hugely budgeted films with mass appeal. The son of two scuba instructors, he was born in Paris in 1959. Like his parents, he was an avid diver and had decided on becoming a marine biologist. But a diving accident when he was 17 rendered him unable to pursue his interest.

While readjusting to city life, Besson discovered cinema and television. They soon replaced his passion for the sea. Years after he began wielding the megaphone, his biggest hit came in 1990: ``Nikita'', the story of a troubled young woman who is turned into a sophisticated,deadly government assassin. Starring his then-wife, Anne Parillaud, the film was a thriller.

Besson's next feature, the 1994 ``The Professional'' was not as well received, but still found favour among the auteur's devoted fans. In 1997, he returned to the sci-fi genre with the flamboyant, ``The Fifth Element'' starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Milla Jovovich. A mindboggling experience, the movie was enormously popular in France. Two years later, Besson exchanged future fantasy with ancient history. ``Joan of Arc'' is now creating history all right. And one is quite certain that Besson himself will this May ((2000) at Cannes, where he serves as the president of the all-important international jury.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 14 2000)

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