Although French filmmakers and journalists love to complain about the pernicious influence of Hollywood on their nation's culture, Luc Besson is the one of the few Gallic directors who has set out to compete head-to-head with the likes of James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. As a result he has often been criticized for pandering to American audiences--even though this attempt has failed more often than not. In France his films have almost always succeeded with audiences and populist critics, but only his 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element--that weird Blade Runner riff with Gary Oldman as a Southern-accented evil earthling and Chris Tucker as a shrieking diva--has been a substantial hit in the United States. (Even in France the venerable Cahiers du cinéma took multiple potshots at Besson during its coverage of the recent Cannes Film Festival, whose jury he headed.)
While much of the director's work has managed to find an American cult audience, especially his ultraviolent hit-babe opus La Femme Nikita (which even inspired a USA Channel spinoff), most American film critics have stayed far outside the Besson fan club. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin's review of The Fifth Element described the filmmaker as "his nation's worst nightmare"--and her reaction was fairly typical.
The current occasion for (re-)considering Besson is The Big Blue, a 163-minute "director's cut" of which is now being released in the U.S., 12 years after it was made. Whatever its running time, this may be the thousandth French film glorifying a doomed couple in the throes of l'amour fou. The true lovers here aren't the couple they appear to be, however, since the seafaring passion of half-French/half-American diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) is far more convincing than his supposed infatuation with New Yorker Johanna (Rosanna Arquette). Jacques's only friend is Enzo (Jean Reno), an Italian diver. Together the two men spur each other on to more daring physical feats, although the death wish underlying Jacques's obsessive nature becomes evident all too soon. Times critic Vincent Canby aptly dismissed the film by pondering, "What can you say about a romantic movie in which the hero goes off with a dolphin instead of Rosanna Arquette?" (Other critics described it as "a sad spectacle" and a "total disaster.")
Still, the question remains: If Besson's films are targeted at Americans, why have they provoked such hostility from American critics and such indifference from mainstream American audiences? Perhaps we feel threatened by his determination to challenge Hollywood on its own territory and prefer to see French filmmakers remain in a safe little art-house ghetto. On the other hand, equally Americanized Hong Kong films such as John Woo's The Killer and Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues reached much the same audience that embraced Besson's La Femme Nikita--and they received plenty of critical support as well.
Ironically, the roots of the big-budget spectacles dominating American movie screens each summer lie in early French cinema. Georges Melies's short "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) invented the sci-fi film from scratch, while, a few years later, Louis Feuillade's serials paved the way for the paranoid mindfucks and bleak cityscapes of The Matrix and Fight Club. Moving in the opposite direction, French New Wave auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and (especially) Claude Chabrol took their influence from American genre films, but strictly on their own terms. (No one could mistake Godard's Breathless or Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player for an American film noir dubbed into French.) The New Wave even spawned work as obsessively talky as Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore and the entire Eric Rohmer oeuvre--films as devoted to everyday life as Lawrence of Arabia was to a vast canvas.
For many Americans, the value of French cinema lies precisely in its difference from our own, meaning that Besson's very existence challenges simplistic notions of it as an antidote to Hollywood escapism. While he has visual style to burn, his films have always emphasized posturing over emotional substance. His insufferable Subway aimed at grafting a punkish update of the French New Wave's youthful romanticism onto an MTV template, failing exactly where Léos Carax (Bad Blood) and Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express) have succeeded. Despite its reputation, La Femme Nikita pales in comparison to the greatest Hong Kong action movies of the early Nineties. The best Besson film I've seen, his 1991 marine-life doc Atlantis, ditches narrative and dialogue entirely in favor of seductive underwater spectacle--although even this relatively accomplished film is marred by Eric Serra's atrocious score.
Besson was a devoted diver himself until an inner-ear injury kept him out of the sea, and this passion is just about all he manages to communicate in The Big Blue. Everything else the film suggests about human experience reeks of wisdom gleaned from a TV screen. Scripted by a five-person committee (including Besson), the film suffers from a 15-to-1 ratio of verbal idiocy to visual grandeur. (In this respect, it's a far less successful precursor to Titanic.) Much of the dialogue sounds like it was translated into English by a high school student. Arquette overacts hysterically (and manages to hail the only American-born cabdriver left in New York), while Barr never overcomes his character's utter blankness. (Jean Reno does lend tremendous vitality to Enzo, giving Besson's caricature of Catholic machismo a full two dimensions.)
Despite its numerous nods to the American marketplace--starting with the casting of the American-accented Barr, rather than Reno, in the lead--The Big Blue feels more Esperanto than American or French. It's torn between enthralling deep-sea visuals and a screenplay that stops the thrills cold, not to mention the demands of balancing heterosexual romance, male bonding, and a hero with stronger ties to nature than people. The resulting mishmash left me completely cold, but the vast European audience that saw the film on its original release--as well as the American cult it has since attracted on video--would certainly disagree. (As testament to the devotion that The Big Blue has inspired in some quarters, Samuel Goldwyn Films' press kit ends with three pages of fan-gushing drawn from the Internet Movie Database.)
Alas, one person's mush is another's gourmet meal, and indeed the passions excited by The Big Blue may owe to the movie's transnational cooking style--or maybe just its generous portions of corn and syrup. At best, it might be a great deal more idiosyncratic a feast than Besson ever intended.
The Big Blue starts Friday at U Film Society.
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