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Besson Vs Hollywood

In the 1950’s French film saw a period of revolution. A small group of film critics turned their backs on traditional methods of French film making and sought their inspiration from overseas. The result was the French Nouvelle Vague and their heroes were Hitchcock and Ray instead of Renoir and Carné. Flash-forward twenty five years and history begins to repeat itself….the Nouvelle Vogue of the 1980’s also sought its inspiration from America although this time its proponents were from the world of advertising and pop videos. Financially they proved to be far more successful. Of this New New Wave, Luc Besson emerged as their Spielberg.

With only seven films to his (directorial) credit made over a period of seventeen years, Luc Besson is not the most prolific film maker in the world and yet as a contemporary director he is among the best of his day. The son of two diving instructors, he originally wanted to become a dolphin specialist after an encounter with one in the Med, but turned to film making after a diving accident prevented him from pursuing his dream. He joined the 80’s New Wave of directors who made slick, visually stunning but often vacuous films and has now taken Hollywood by storm as the new enfant terrible. The Americans failed to remake his films in the traditional Hollywood style (The Assassin with Bridgit Fonda was a direct remake of Besson’s Nikita) and so he has made films in the Hollywood mould but by his own rules, culminating in the Science-Fiction blockbuster The Fifth Element. We’re not talking cheap imitation here. The Fifth Element broke French box office records with the opening weeks takings, comparatively on par with The Lost Worlds opening in America. The critics hated it but the public came along in popcorn scented droves.

The following gives a brief introduction to his work….

1983 Le Dernier Combat

The supreme test of any first time film maker. How to make a worthy film (particularly feature length at that) for absolutely no money, well Fr 700,000. The early films of directors reveal much about their artistic skills and a great deal more about their resourcefulness. This one however, highlights Besson’s sheer audacity. Based on his short motion picture at film school, this is his film prior to the Fifth Element that has the most science-fiction elements to it. Set in a devastated post apocalyptic world, the few survivors are attempting to get by, living on their wits, and also trying to discover why they cannot speak and therefore communicate effectively. The film is virtually completely without dialogue, with only one word spoken throughout the entirety of the film (you can’t fault him for innovation as he hasn’t got a budget for sync sound recording and mercifully the word isn’t subtitled!). The scene where the protagonists discover a device which may help them actually speak is truly moving. The whole scenario is morally ambiguous throughout and there are several issues that need resolving, but the circumstances in which the characters find themselves help provide an understanding. Featuring among the new comers is Jean Reno in the first of many roles he will play in Besson’s oeuvre, here as an initially amusing but persistent infiltrator whose intentions and actions become more diseased as the story progresses. In one particular scene virtually the entire contents of the featured laboratory/dwellings are used at one time or another to beat the daylights out of either The Man (Pierre Jolivet) or The Brute (Reno), its length turning the violence into futility.

The film is reminiscent of George Lucas’s THX1138 which has a similarly stark mise-en-scene while producing deep emotion, and exhibits the same degree of innovation for a first film. Comparisons could also be drawn with both Dark Star, which it resembles in tone during lighter moments, and Mad Max, with which it shares similarly bleak scenarios for the world in decline. It is in this environment of sound without speech that makes the film work so well, they perfectly complement the black and white harshness of the widescreen cinematography in a way not seen since Eraserhead and little seen since.

1985 Subway

This is Bessons most vacuous film, arguably little more than a glorified pop video. Very 80’s, this film follows the exploits of various characters that live around the Metro system. Fred (Christophe Lambert) has some papers and everyone wants Fred. Dead. Falling in love with potential buyer Helena (Isabelle Adjani) is not a good idea. Neither is having to run from criminals and the police with your only hope being a group of underground dwelling artists and pop musicians.

From the astonishing opening car and foot chase about and into the Metro you are aware that this is very much an eye candy movie, a good one and certainly showing a sure eye for snappy editing, hand held camerawork and widescreen composition, but ultimately shallow.

1988 The Big Blue

Clearly the most personal film that Besson has produced to date, it tells the story of two rival friends competing for the title of worlds greatest diver. The term diver here refers to the sort that use neither oxygen tank nor fixed line. This gives us an inbuilt suspense mechanism for the director to exploit to maximum gain. Will they hold their breath long enough to swim to the surface alive? Should they even be alive bearing in mind the depths to which they descend? Throw in a touch of doomed romance and a touch of psychotic behaviour courtesy of Jean Reno (Gary Oldman not being available at this time) what could clearly descend into a Jacques Cousteau buddy/buddy film it comes across as affecting and believable. Oh, and there are lots of dolphins too. The cinematography is breathtaking, sweeping from intimate close shots to surreal oceanscapes. The film Atlantis, directed by Besson, was derived from the ocean and underwater images of the Big Blue, but is basically “Wildlife on 2” filmed as a pop video.

1990 Nikita

In the rain drenched neon city, a wretched gang desperate for their next fix raid a pharmacy. The police arrive and inevitably things turn very nasty. All the gang are killed except for Nikita and when discovered, she kills a gendarme. She is sentenced to die for this and indeed the newspapers announce her dead by lethal injection. She awakes in a stark white room. Is this heaven or is this hell? Neither in fact, for she has been given “another chance” and will be trained as a spy/assassin. The film becomes more mainstream as it progresses and it explores the consequences of letting a trained and yet deeply vulnerable killer back into society.

1995 Leon

The most enjoyable of Besson’s films and a prelude to the Fifth Element in that the context is very Hollywood, the film is set in New York and yet the style is as French as a baguette. Another assassin, Leon (Jean Reno) is totally professional, he picks off his victims one by one, they never see or hear him until it is too late. He lives next door to a pretty dysfunctional family. When all but one of this family are killed by the corrupt cop played by Gary Oldman, he reluctantly befriends the youngest daughter and agrees to help her avenge her loss.

This is very much a transitional film in his career, where Besson becomes accepted by the mainstream, both the studios/distributors and the audience, and it really paves the way to producing a large-scale production. That said, it is a masterpiece in its own right, fast paced , snappy and above all intelligent.

1997 The Fifth Element

A Blockbuster/Science Fiction Epic in every sense of the word. Besson has been building up to this since the age of sixteen. Stylistically evolved from Metal Hurlent, the film opens in a parallel past derived from Stargate Egyptology and Raiders of the Lost Ark style action, with chubby aliens (who look like a cross between a Vorlon and a hedgehog) and some pseudo mystical babble. It then hurls us into the 23rd Century whereby our hero Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis, but it should have been Jean Reno) has to save the world by bringing together the representations of Earth, Air, Fire and Water and the Fifth Element, Leeloo to create the ultimate weapon and destroy the enemies that were prophesied to obliterate the Earth. Fast paced throughout, we have flawed good guys, psychotically evil bad guys, stupid cops, dumb and violent aliens, a beautiful diva, an intensely irritating media guru and a long suffering cat. Visually the film is never short of breathtaking, from the reconstruction of Leeloo, her subsequent Leap of Faith into Korben’s taxi, stomach turning taxi chases through the congested skyways of New York and ludicrous quantities of military hardware, to the opulence of an off-world holiday resort. What sets these apart from your average effects movie is that these details are not confined to the set pieces, but pervade throughout the film in a myriad of secondary components. It is this attention to design that creates a world that is internally coherent despite the gaping plot holes. And this is the point. The Fifth Element is entertainment pure and simple, you cash your brain in at the car park and return two hours later with a cheesy grin on your face. If anything the implausibility helps the film along, the only time you catch your breath is when the hyperactive and terminally obnoxious Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) enters the fray at which stage even the most devoted pacifist discovers the will to kill. Oldman camps it up wonderfully as the evil Zorg, outdoing his seminal nutter performance in Leon and developing a bizarre southern drawl, it’s halfway between Ming the Merciless (all vertical collars and silly beard) and the melodramatic intensity of The Hooded Claw. Bruce Willis shows he knows how to pick good science fiction movies, he’s been in the best two of the last decade, and gives it his all. And the actors do get thrown around. A lot. Bessons insistence on hand held camerawork, normally shot by himself for that auteur feel, demands intimacy with the subject, the kind of intimacy that precludes stunt doubles for all but the long shots. With Leelou smashing through walls, through cabs, out of windows and kicking seven bells out of all and sundry for a large chunk of the running time, it is a surprise that she doesn’t end up looking like the Diva. Blue.

Besson is not a science fiction director, he is a film maker who sometimes uses science fiction contexts, and good ones at that, but within his own style and by his own rules of film making. His SF work sharply defines the world he is creating, the details within and the plot that develops, but then his mainstream work does too. Most of his films set in the modern day tend to exude an air of otherworldliness. In Subway, the mise en scene is placed in an alternative Metro; we know the setting, but are introduced into a world that although not beyond our imagination, ventures past normal consideration. With Nikita, the use of electronic doors and bizarre drugging devices place it in a no-when(sic)-land. The Big Blue has fantasy elements to it , particularly those scenes involving dolphins and the ambiguity of the ending.

There are themes and motifs that manifest themselves throughout his work, particularly in the relationships between the protagonists – elements of adoption and protection – the surrogate father/daughter or father/son relationships set up in Nikita, Leon and The Last Battle where the protégé in turn provides a degree of security and/or stability to the protector. In the Fifth Element, Korben decides to take on responsibility for Leeloo, but ultimately she is the only thing that can save him, and the world. Another motif that has developed in his work is that of an object that has special significance to the protagonist, the plant in Leon and that poor cat in the Fifth Element. These objects do not have a special relevance to the plot, but once again highlight Besson’s attention to details that help create a greater sense of empathy with the characters, the world they live in and the circumstances in which they are involved. It is rare to see this in typical Hollywood films; by their rules everything should have a significance to ensure complete narrative closure.

Stylistically, Bessons work is descended from French comic book artists rather than French film makers and this results in an oblique aesthetic. With a strong sense of visual elegance combined with complementary soundtracks, and his discernible character driven narratives, he never fails to entertain and stimulate.


With the exception of The Last Battle and The Fifth Element all of Besson’s films are available in this country. Be warned that there is a horrible subbed/pan & scan version of Subway about so tread carefully. The Last Battle occasionally crops up on Channel Four.


http://www.ifi.uio.no/~mariuswi/besson/ The Luc Besson Films WWW Page has lots of interesting bits and bobs about the man and his films. Don’t be fooled by the Spartan front end

http://www.fifthelement.co.uk/ Has the low-down on The Fifth Element in all it’s multimedia glory. Those with little computers or little patience avoid, those without bask in gratuitous technology, get the screensaver, watch the trailer and feel smug.