Luc Besson

Considered by some as the most American of French film directors; his films are stylish modern society insight, often dealing with contemporary themes – absence of family, frequent violence and unusual emotional relations; his childlike heroes come from social margins or imagined worlds. Writer, producer, director, dreamer – Luc Besson.


Luc Besson – American style, French spirit
Besson’s early life is unusual – his parents were scuba diving instructors frequently moving around the world. He didn’t watch television/films, he didn’t have any contact with urban life since he was born. In his youth Besson showed amazing interest for writing stories – as a teenager he wrote early drafts for The Fifth Element (1997) and Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue,1988); he was bored in school, later he explained. Besson wanted to be a marine biologist but he suffered a diving accident at age 17 and he couldn’t dive any longer. He moved back to Paris, his birthplace and soon realized that film art could be his future; Besson was interested in various arts beside writing stories and film seemed to be the perfect solution.

In early 80’s Luc Besson started to work on his early short films. He didn’t receive any formal education in filmmaking whatsoever. In those days he met music composer Eric Serra who made the score for L’Avant dernier, his first (short) film. Serra later became Besson’s regular collaborator. Besson also managed to work on several commercials at the time, for French television. In 1983 he directed his first feature – Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), unusual science-fiction postapocalyptic story set in Europe; cinematography was in black and white, Jean Reno appeared as an actor and Besson wrote the screenplay. The next project for talented author was Subway (1985), this time Besson was involved in French A production; leading actors were Isabelle Adjani and Christopher Lambert and the story, set in Paris subway system, is filled with mystery, urban, noir and almost surreal in displaying nocturnal street life.

Besson already had his visual style defined as he directed one of his favorites, Le Grand Bleu, starring Jean-Marc Barr, Rosanna Arquette and Jean Reno. It is loosely based on a true story about a diver strongly connected with the ‘deep blue’, especially dolphins. Besson is certainly the most competent for making a film about the aquatics, he was diving his whole youth. The Big Blue is crafted with style, beautifully photographed, it has memorable music score by Eric Serra; the story of rivalry and friendship but more, it’s a strange, unique romance with elegic ending; this is probably Besson’s most personal film. After The Big Blue, Luc Besson is considered as a pivotal figure in the Cinema du look movement (France, during 1980’s – another notable member is Jean-Jacques Beineix) – highly visual style in filmmaking is a trade mark of this stylistic school. In France, The Big Blue became what the French call a film générationnel, a defining moment in the culture (International Herald Tribune).

Luc Besson Leon
Jean Reno, Luc Besson and Natalie Portman on the set – Leon (1994)

Subsequent films made Besson career high profile – Nikita (1990), Leon (The Professional,1994). Nikita is young anti-heroine, violent drug addict; death sentenced, she’s getting the second chance – being government secret service’s asassin. Her character is full of contradictions – aggressive and timid, violent and gentle, depending whether it’s personal issue or not. Anne Parillaud (former Besson’s wife) gives the performance of her life along with excellent Tcheky Karyo, Jean Reno and Jean-Hugues Anglade. After The Big Blue, Besson succesfully returned to action genre – Nikita had huge impact in popular culture, it was both commercial and critical success; few years after the American version of the story (The Point of No Return,1993) was filmed, Bridget Fonda played the lead; Nikita finally become long-lived American tv series.

Luc Besson filmed his next project in US although producers remain French. Leon (The Professional,1994) was set in New York; title character is, same as Nikita, obscure hitman who doesn’t talk much, especially about himself. The film depicts the most unusual ‘partnership’ consisting of a strange asassin and 12 year old girl whose family got killed by local drug dealers. The estranged girl, Matilda, is willing to become professional killer and Leon gives her ‘lessons’. The relationship eventually gets highly emotional, Leon becomes ‘father figure’ to Matilda. Jean Reno is remarkable as title character, Gary Oldman perfect as the main villain (corrupted police detective) but true revelation in Leon was young Natalie Portman. Prior the actual filming Besson auditioned dozens of teenage girls for the role of Matilda and picking Portman was simply a perfect move – her talent exploded on the screen. Leon is cleverly written action story and directed perfectly, composed with great precise; everything in this film is at the right place. Leon eventually became cult movie on both sides of Atlantic, adored by many young viewers, especially adolescents.

In 1997 Luc Besson finally got the chance to realise his life long ambition – filming a science fiction story he thought of while still at school. The Fifth Element, starring Milla Jovovich, Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, set in distant future, is beatifully assembled story comprised of action, myth, and romance. Besson succesfully mixes action and humour, making this film both serious and cartoon-like in a way. The image of future society (brilliant visual effects) is neither dystopian nor utopian, in Besson’s vision nothing’s really changed, except cities being overcrowded and cars that can fly. Despite using cliches, Besson managed to make the story fresh and interesting and in its core The Fifth Element is a love story.

Fifth Element Luc Besson
Innocence as the ultimate rescue – Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997)

Luc Besson returned to France, his next film was The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). Year before Besson produced popular action movie Taxi (1998) which turned out to become commercially successful franchize. The Story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich (Besson’s wife at the time), Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich is based on life of legendary medieval heroine who led French people against its oppressors, during Hundred Years war with England. Despite its technical brilliance (cinematography most of all) Besson’s epic film ends up as intriguing mixture of virtues and faults – it appears as pretencious work in its grand scale, the characters could’ve been better developed; the final part of Joan of Arc is a bit confusing, not being consistent as it should.

In the 21st century, Luc Besson was more focused on producing various films; the most popular projects were Taxi series (4 films) and Transporter franchize (3 films). Besson also written numerous screenplays, many of them were filmed – Jet Li’s film Kiss of the Dragon (2001), Unleashed (2005), Taken (2008). Luc Besson created the Arthur series, fantasy books for children. Besson directed the first film, Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), mixed live action and animation project (comprised of first two books of the collection).

Luc Besson – quotes on film:
“My expression is a reflection of the world I have seen, and in that world everyone was barefoot in bathing suits, following the order of the sea, the natural order of sunrise and sunset. I never went to the cinémathèque. I didn’t know much about the masters of world cinema.”

“In France we have this problem: we cannot admit that movies are also an industry, that a movie is also fun. I think we have the wrong notion of commercial and intellectual or artistic film. All films are commercial. When you go to see a film by Jean-Luc Goddard you pay the same price.”

Besson is often considered as the most Hollywood of French film directors. He is an author that favors style over substance, his stories mostly rely on cliches but they were always filmed to be visually beautiful and/or exciting. The demise of society as well as the absence of family are explored by Besson in his films. He was often featuring fully enclosed sets with no natural lighting. Known for casting French star Jean Reno almost regularly. Besson’s cinema illustrates the tensions and conflicts of a postmodern age and are generally perceived as signs of their times.