"I wanted her look to combine historical truth with the strength of other Luc Besson heroines, like Nikita and Leeloo from The Fifth Element," says costume designer Catherine Leterrier of the title character in Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. The film, which Columbia Pictures is releasing November 12, follows many other cinematic treatments of the figure, but Leterrier says the difference between this movie's Joan, Milla Jovovich, and other actresses who played the role "came about totally naturally."

Shot in the Czech Republic and on such French locations as Ile de France, the chateau country of the Loire Valley, Normandy, Picardie, Poitou Charente, and Aquitaine, The Messenger presents a lavish depiction of 15th-century life, ranging from peasantry to royal court. Leterrier and production designer Hugues Tissandier researched the period and crucial figures--including Joan and King Charles VII of France (John Malkovich)--at the Joan of Arc Center in Orleans, from whence the maid hailed. The research was one aspect of the 60-million-franc film's six-month preproduction process, which was followed by six months of shooting.

"I researched the raw materials of the age, like linen, hemp, leather, and metal," says Leterrier, who previously designed costumes for two other Middle Ages-set films: Les Visiteurs and Les Couleurs de Temps. "The peasants are dressed in handmade garments in natural colors like beige, gray, and brown, while the nobles' fabrics are thick and silky, with dense colors. They adored embroidery--lace didn't exist yet--and jewelry. I took the opportunity to make large, multidimensional designs, like certain 15th-century iconographies with stylized animal or arabesque themes on the fabrics." Hair was also part of Leterrier's responsibility: "The peasant women have their hair hidden--it was the decency of the time. The noblewomen removed a line of hair along their foreheads and wore elaborate bonnets and veils of gold and silver."

According to the designer, the clerical costumes vary from low clergy, garbed in peasant-style fabrics and colors, to high clergy of the court, "which is as rich as the nobles'. For Charles' coronation scene, the costumes of the ecclesiasticals are gilded and also of silver. Charles wears long robes made for men, in shades of blue, embroidered with gold and silver. At the coronation, his armor and his crown are gilded with gold leaf, and his blue velour cape is embroidered with hundreds of fleurs de lis."

As for Jovovich's Joan, "in her youth, she is dressed simply, like a peasant: long hair, bonnet, dresses in linen and hemp, and used, hand-me-down aprons. Later, she is in costume to travel on horse--dark, sober cape, leather hood and boots, knickers, hair tied back hurriedly in a ponytail. For the war, she cuts her hair in a bad bowl cut, and wears a chemise, a padded undergarment and coat of chain mail and set of armor. When she is taken prisoner, she is in a studded, laced leather tunic, inspired by military brigandines," leather or cloth reinforced with metal studs. All of the costumes, but especially Joan's clothing in prison, was subjected to heavy aging, with wear and tear and sweat, dirt, and blood stains added by Leterrier's crew.

"All of the military costumes are extremely worn--this was the Hundred Years' War," says the designer. "The nobles are in complete metal armor or in brigandines and chain mail. The soldiers have a helmet, and often pieces of armor for the legs and shoulders, and rustic brigandines to protect the flesh." To help the audience sort out the players during battle scenes, Leterrier dressed the French in shades of blue, the English in red, and the Burgundians in brown and gold.

Every costume in The Messenger was made for the film; tailoring was completed by a 30-person workshop at Epinay Studio, and armor in another workshop by four armor-makers. The final tally: 3,000 costumes, including 500 pieces of jewelry, 1,700 military helmets, 100 bonnets or headdresses, 45 miters for the coronation, 900 pairs of gloves, 150 ecclesiastical hats, 2,000 pairs of shoes and boots, and 500 hairstyles.