‘A very good friend of mine watched the film [L’ Avant Dernier (1981)] and said "Luc, there is one thing you have to learn and that is when you have nothing to say – shut up!"’ – The Guardian, March 2000
The French director Luc Besson could be accused of many things, but speaking too much wouldn’t be one of them. Like his best characters [The Man in Le Dernier Combat (1983), Jacques in Le Grande Bleu (1988) and the hitman in Leon (1994)] Besson’s words have been few and far between, directing only eight feature-length films in the past 24 years. Besson it would seem is a grand orator scared of saying too much, a director acutely aware of overstaying his welcome. In an interview with the journalist Richard Jobson, Besson stated his intention to direct no more than 10 movies during his career – he believed that that would ‘be enough’ and would save him from the pitfalls of having nothing left to say.
Born in Paris in 1959, the baby Besson arrived at a point where French cinema was awash with breaking new waves. While Francois Truffant was putting his Cahiers theory into practice with The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard was jump-cutting in Breathless (1960), Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were inventing ‘noir’ with their analysis of the films of Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tourneur and Anthony Mann.
Besson’s parents were divers, and with young Luc in tow, they toured the Mediterranean coastline for much of his childhood. His time there, learning to dive with his parents, undoubtedly provided Luc with a world where sound was of little importance, words were useless and visual cues were the only means of communicating. Unfortunately Besson’s love for diving and its quietude was cut short by an accident, and he subsequently returned to Paris at the age of 17. The thoughts of silence though came with him.
Besson soon became professionally involved with directors Patrick Grandperret and Claude Faraldo, and it wasn’t long before he founded his own production company Films du Loup. Le Dernier Combat (1983) was Besson’s first film and was itself a remake of an earlier short he made in 1980. Starring Pierre Jolivet as a scavenging survivor in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Le Dernier Combat not only showcased Besson’s concerns with visual style but heralded his presence in the new wave of eighties French cinema that began with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981).
Shot in a bleached monochrome, Le Dernier Combat is to all intents and purposes a silent movie. It features no dialogue at all (it is suggested in the film that following the great apocalypse humans no longer need speech) and is a challenging film to watch, but one that brilliantly underscores Besson’s love of silence and style. It radiates with the kind of rigour and formal experimentation that you only get from debut movies and, together with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Bunker de la Derniere Rafale (1981), marked a new interest in French fantasy cinema in the early eighties.
In 1985 Besson followed up his auspicious debut with Subway (1985). A strange hybrid of a film, Subway saw Besson branch out from the fantasy element of ‘Combat’ and begin investigating the noir influences of his French predecessors. The film follows Fred (Christopher Lambert), a petty criminal who flees into the dark Parisian underground after stealing documents from a local mob boss. Here in the depths of the sewer Fred encounters a series of characters that, in true Besson style, have little to say but plenty to show.
The reigned-in approach to dialogue that would go on to become a staple of Besson’s work, here assumes its greatest pertinence given the noir origins of Subway. Drawing on the likes of Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1937) (for its theme of a Paris gangster fleeing his crime) and Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) (for its ‘Parisian love triangle’ set-up), Subway promotes the noir universe and its paradigm that between men ‘silence is golden’. The film was a great success at the box-office and garnered 13 César nominations.
The opening sequence of Besson’s next film recalls not only the monochrome silence of The Last Battle (1983) but also the spirit and excitement of Besson’s own childhood. We follow a young boy (read Besson) as he runs across a rocky coastline before arriving at his favoured spot, high on a cliff edge. He dives into the silvery silence and in an amazing sequence feeds an eel as it tentatively emerges from its cave. So begins Le Grande Bleu (1988), Besson’s swansong to the sea and salute to the teachings of his parents.
Visually stunning in its underwater photography, The Big Blue is unsurprisingly a film most at home in the depths of the ocean. In these scenes, of Jacques or Enzo diving, Besson was clearly revelling in yet another opportunity to dispense with dialogue, embrace silence and let the visuals do the talking. The movie reinforces Besson’s interest in visual organisation and physical action, and the manner in which he prides these elements over tirades of what could be called the ‘noise of talk’. The Big Blue won four César awards and was the highest grossing film in France at that time.
Having paid due deference to the silent movie era, film noir and his childhood years with the first three films, Nikita (1990) saw Besson looking a little further afield and to Hong Kong cinema for his next work. Prefiguring his New York story Léon (1994), Nikita follows the trials of a social dropout who becomes a lethal government killer, dispatched to dispatch in a series of coolly-styled, Parisian locales. Nikita borrows heavily from the cool palette and heated violence of HK cinema, reworking the frenetic action and ‘hired assassin’ thematic of John Woo’s Die xue shuan xiong (The Killer, 1989) and turning them into something typically French, typically Bessonic.
Nikita was Besson’s rites of passage film, in which many of his later tropes and traits (visceral action, Gallic inflection, restrained synthesized score) were honed and wielded to perfection. It was also the start of a successful working relationship with DoP Thierry Arbogast, who would go on to photograph all of Besson’s subsequent films with the exception of one, Atlantis (1991).
‘As Atlantis ably demonstrates, a picture is worth a thousand voice-overs’. So said Desson Howe in his Washington Post review of Luc Besson’s only documentary feature. Two years in the making, Atlantis is a thoroughly deeper investigation into the heart and soul of Besson’s young years (something he developed to a lesser degree in The Big Blue) – his romance with the sea. Crafted with the care and attention of an avid fan, the film is the result of hundreds of dives conducted by Besson and his cameraman Christian Petron, in and around the Bahamas, Galapagos Islands and the North Pole.
Into this world of silence, that is readily exchangeable with quietude of Subway’s sewers or Nikita’s stylised locales or the deserts of The Last Battle, Besson plunges his audience. With the same glee as Jacques in The Big Blue we follow sea snakes and dolphins to the tune of Maria Callas’ La Somnambula. Titlecards such as ‘light’ and ‘movement’ separate sections of the film from one another and offer a wonderfully abstract framework through which to view these timeless creatures.
In 1994 Besson made what is to date his only classically ‘American’ film, though this tag may only be applicable in terms of setting and a clutch of key characters. Definitely a partner piece to Nikita, Léon (1994) sheds much of the stylised approach to set design prevalent in that film and Besson’s earlier work, Subway. Taking place in New York, the film’s location is more accurately an amalgam of that city and Paris, courtesy of a carefully constructed shoot (one or two scenes were actually shot in Paris) and Eric Serra’s distinctly Gallic score.
To that end, Léon draws upon its quintessentially American setting only in a very minimal way, sticking closely to the hallways and stairwells of Little Italy and dismissing anything that could be typically associated with NY Americana. Besson invokes the classical Hollywood figures that helped manufacture the climate of violence Léon is part of; from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to the laconic John Wayne, Besson enjoys showing his awareness of America’s gun-toting screen heritage. And like these characters before him Leon favours action over chat.
The latter portion of Besson’s career has seen him make some curious choices. In 1997 the director shed his Gallic sensibility and fondness for silence to indulge a childhood story of space travel and Gaultier fashion. The Fifth Element (1997) remains his most successful film taking over $17, 031, 345 in its first weekend at the US box-office. It also remains the exception to his work.
In 1999 Besson countered the considerable financial clout of ‘Element’ with one of his weakest and most poorly received films, The Messenger: The Story of Joan Arc (1999). Stripping his version of any of the moral dilemma and tortured conscience that made Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film so involving, Besson’s ‘Arc’ is instead a noisy, bloody historical regurgitation of the Nikita story. It is also film number eight on his fatalistic list; let us hope that he returns to the silent and fantastical edge of his earlier movies for numbers nine and ten.