“I always follow my instinct,” writer/producer/director Luc Besson told us in interview last week in regards to his choice of directorial projects. But just where has that instinct led him? He’s a fascinating filmmaker, not exclusively for the films he makes but also for the career decisions he’s made along the way, puzzling many onlookers. He started out as an indie darling, making stylistic, often visceral and even arty action films that were infused with his love of American genre films, comic books, and music videos. Intelligent, left of center and shot through with a distinctly European sensibility for all their U.S. influence, these early works were a rare breed of critically respectable action film. Soon the Frenchman was essentially known as a modern auteur, and one with a hip, young edge.
But that period of his career didn’t last. At some point Besson ditched his authorial badge and began trying his hand elsewhere, first embracing a populist streak and enjoying a period of mainstream Hollywood success, then moving on to a string of French animated “Arthur and the Invisibles” films for children (only the first of which got released in the U.S.). More recently, Besson has returned to his stylish action roots and, like Roger Corman in a beret, has transformed himself into the CEO of a cottage industry of Euro-trashy action films (most of which he conceives of, writes and produces, but does not direct). Last week, in a bid to recapture something more in the vein of say, “Léon,” than “The Transporter 3,” he returned as the co-writer and director of “The Family,” starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, a mob comedy that liberally mixes extreme violence, melodrama and awkward situational laughs. Like Besson in his heyday, it’s an uneven balance of elements, but here that doesn’t necessarily pay off (read our review).
Still, it was enough to get us thinking about the rest of Besson’s career — how he parlayed his directorial success into the mini-empire he has since created, how he made the move from “savior of entertaining European fare” (even being listed as one of a few French filmmakers spearheading a movement in the ’80s called cinema du look) to “exclusive purveyor of above-average B-movie cheese” and how likely it is that he’ll ever be able to go back again. Maybe, after being heralded as important, the director shied away from the label, intent on forging a more lucrative path for himself (as the man behind the incredibly successful “Taken” series, it’s paid off well). But after all this time, it’s debatable as to whether he can regain that early level of respect — even when he makes a bid for importance, as with recent Aung San Suu Kyi biopic, “The Lady,” the critical response has been less than rapturous, and audiences have stayed away.
His has been a rollercoaster journey, and so rather than just do a “Best of” we’ve created The Assessment — in which we take a sampling of representative projects from the better- and lesser-known portions of a career, and use them to tell the story of a filmmaker. In a career with as many highs and lows, peaks and valleys as this one, it wasn’t an easy task, but here we go with a whistle-stop tour through Luc Besson’s directorial career.
Just two years after his feature debut, “Le Dernier Combat,” a nearly dialogue-free black-and-white post-apocalyptic tale that brought Besson quite some success on the international festival circuit, he made “Subway,” which, while it nodding to the spartan minimalist narrative of his first movie, is stylistically a much clearer signpost of where he’d be going in the future. Imbued with a punkish, kinetic aesthetic, from the hairdos to the synthy score (by frequent Besson collaborator Eric Serra, who also takes a small role), it’s true that the things that made it feel so hip and edgy at the time are the very elements that date the film now. But there is undeniable filmmaking bravado at play here including Besson’s ability to find a garish sort of glamor in the lives of his disenfranchised, largely subterranean heroes, and injecting a kind of manic energy into even this most illogical and incoherent of stories, something that endures through his movies to this day.
Christopher Lambert plays Fred, a handsome, bleached-blonde drifter type who, on the run from the henchmen of a gangster from whom he stole some documents, and from the police, takes refuge in the cavernous and mazelike Paris Metro, moving with ease and familiarity between its public and its forbidden spaces. Tracked down by the gangster’s moll Helena (Isabelle Adjani, whose gorgeousness overcomes even the ruffliest of 80s frou-frou concoctions) whom Fred has already fallen for, the film then devolves into a series of chases and interludes as Fred’s accomplices — notably Jean-Hughes Anglade as a rollerskating pickpocket and Jean Reno as a drummer who refuses to be named — themselves have run ins with the various pursuers, all while Fred is trying to marshal together a rock band out of the disparate collection of buskers who work the tunnels. Nodding directly to Godard‘s “Breathless,” we can also certainly detect a kinship with the following year’s “Mauvais Sang” from Leos Carax (not to mention his 1991 film “The Lovers on the Bridge“) in the portrayal of a marginalised society driven literally underground and in the idea of star-crossed lovers rejecting a bourgeois life in favor of something freer and less encumbered. But let’s not overstate Besson’s impulses as a social commentator, whatever the political content, there is a certain irony present, a kind of winkiness that indicates Besson is not taking it all too seriously, and nor should we — an element that foreshadows his later career in pure popcorn. Nonetheless, while hardly a classic, “Subway” was a calling card for something very exciting at the time: a fusing of the nihilist French tradition with a poppy, punky, trashy vibe. If every generation needs a new expression of rebellion, it felt, for a few years at least, like the young people of Mitterand’s ’80s France might have found it with “Subway,” Besson and his ilk.
With a black-and-white, mostly silent post-apocalyptic war movie, a subterranean punk-rock odyssey and a languid, heavily fictionalized based-on-a-true-story diving movie (“The Big Blue“) under his belt, Besson had become a director to watch: he was stylish, energetic and seemingly totally unafraid to change it up completely from one film to the next. He was happy to cross boundaries and mix genres, with his films fluctuating wildly between earnest melodrama and a kind of arch expressiveness. But it was “Nikita” in 1990 that really put Besson on the map: and it’s probably still the film that best exemplifies a “Luc Besson movie” if there really is such a thing, foreshadowing all his guns’n’gals Hollywood films, and also the quasi-exploitational phase of his later producing career, while still retaining an independent’s eye for character. In the first fifteen minutes of “Nikita,” we see an economy of narrative that Besson has yet to recapture in any of his later films, as a young junkie (Anne Parillaud) murders a policeman in the botched robbery of a pharmacy, is sentenced to life in prison, “dies” while detained, and wakes up in a secret spy organization known as The Centre. Here she’s reborn as an assassin, under the tutelage of Bob (Tcheky Karyo).
“Nikita” was Besson’s first real taste of U.S. success and though it met with mixed reviews both at home in France and elsewhere, it did well at the box office internationally, in direct contrast to his last film, “The Big Blue” which, rescored and recut, with a “happier” ending for the U.S., tanked just a couple of years prior despite its massive success at home. “Nikita,” however, was a wonderfully sellable mix of foreign, subtitled prestige pic and down-and-dirty genre action film; it was hyperstylized, in an almost Tony Scott way (you can understand why it was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino‘s), but it did have a little more on its mind for those who wanted to look for it. Besson was clearly invested and interested in the emotional journey of the main character, and in the way that violence and femininity can coexist side by side (a thematic obsession that recurs regularly throughout his work). Perhaps more tellingly for Besson’s future career, it has since shown its franchise-ability in inspiring an American remake (John Badham‘s decent “Point of No Return“) and two popular television series, none of which, Besson claims, he received a red cent for. But more importantly, more than any of his films, it cemented Besson’s particular talent as a writer/director who could mix popcorn entertainment with thornier thematic concerns and a singular point of view. How much he followed through on that promise, however, is a matter for debate.
If “Nikita” was the promise, then “Léon” was the delivery. Essentially, Besson took the Jean Reno character from “Nikita,” a ruthless hitman who refers to himself as a “cleaner,” and built an entire movie around him, giving an indelible role to his lucky charm actor as well as to the impossibly winsome Natalie Portman in the process. This cleaner lives and works in New York City, next door to a young girl, Mathilde (Natalie Portman) whom he reluctantly takes in after a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) guns down her entire family. He then teaches her the only thing he knows: how to kill and how to exact retribution for her murdered family. Since the film was English-language and highly accessible, it served as Besson’s breakthrough for those who hadn’t bothered with the artier, or at least more subtitled “Nikita.” Despite some of Besson’s signature quirks shining through, and the borderline inappropriate relationship between the assassin and the young girl (while there are a couple of moments in the movie that give you pause, their connection seems to be emotional more than romantic) in a lot of ways “Léon” (released as the more anonymous “The Professional” in the U.S.) represents the peak of Besson’s abilities as a filmmaker – it’s cleanly told, boldly stylized, violent, emotional and, at its core, features a powerful young woman coming to terms with that power. It epitomizes his love of foreign art films and Hollywood action movies, all in one beautifully concise package, and it might be the best Gary Oldman bad guy role ever (which is really saying something). Even if you don’t appreciate Besson’s larger body of work, it’s hard not to love “Léon,” and it is certainly his most complete and most satisfying film to date. The mooted Portman-starring sequel never got off the ground, with Besson protege Olivier Megaton directing the similarly themed Zoe Saldana-starring, Besson-co-scripted “Colombiana” in 2011 instead, to vastly diminished returns.
“The Fifth Element” (1997)
So what do you do when the critical and commercial world are both at your feet and you can get more or less anything made? Well, if you’re Luc Besson, you embark on a bloated, sprawling sci-fi epic that’s been something of a passion project since you wrote the initial story at age 16. At the time of the film’s release in 1997, “The Fifth Element” was the single most expensive film ever produced in Europe but it became, until the release of “The Intouchables” in 2011, also the most domestically profitable French film of all time, and apparently is still the most internationally successful. Like all of Besson’s work, it’s a wild mishmash of ideas and tones, but here all of those ideas are encased in an oddball, hyperimagined occasionally dazzling science fiction film that is equally inspired by “Star Wars” and the long legacy of French comic books (particularly the work of Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mezieres). The movie’s plot, which involves a brutish cab driver (Bruce Willis) who teams up with a mystical entity (Milla Jovovich, Besson’s wife at the time) to stop a carcinogenic, planet-sized mass from consuming earth (with Oldman, once again, as Besson’s corporeal agent of evil), is at once his most traditionally mainstream, comically aloof and oddly forgettable. “The Fifth Element” is a movie that combines giant aliens that look like tottering robots, an intergalactic cruise ship, a sexually ambiguous radio DJ (played by Chris Tucker in an early tour de force performance), a blue-skinned opera singer and Oldman waxing philosophical about the nature of chaos while utilizing a gummy, cartoonish Southern accent. But maybe even more so than most Besson joints, the power of “The Fifth Element” lies in its outrageousness. Besson’s candy-colored world, like something out of the pages of “Heavy Metal” magazine remains one of the more unique visions of the future from the past twenty years, with sci-fi staples like flying cars and glittery skyscrapers rubbing shoulders with eccentric Bessonian flourishes like the McDonald’s employees being outfitted in uniforms designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a subplot involving priests. Jovovich’s otherworldly Leeloo may be the ultimate Besson heroine: she is physical, sexual, emotional and yet naïve. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes she downloads and views the extent of human cruelty and is crippled by the experience, but still compelled to save the planet. A strange mix of science and spirituality, cynicism and faith “The Fifth Element” may contain simply too many strands and colors and plotlines, but the movie remains a kicky visual feast, and is also, regrettably, one of the last times the director seemed to invite the viewer to have as much fun watching one of his films as he had making it.
“The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (1999)
After writing and producing the action comedy “Taxi” in 1998 (a film that would inspire two sequels and a limp American remake, thus kicking off the non-directorial “impresario” aspect of Besson’s career in earnest), he returned with “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” which is pretty much what you would expect from Besson trying to mount a historical epic about the martyred young woman who claimed to receive godly visions and helped save France from marauding English invaders. Jovovich once again starred for Besson in the role of another preternaturally gifted young female, again assaying the fine line between spirituality and kicking ass, but here you feel that some of the more dramatic aspects of her character are a little beyond the actress’s grasp, and the film’s literally sanctified subject matter meant that her performance was going to be much more rigorously scrutinized here than in “The Fifth Element.” It turned out just so, with Jovovich’s lead being cited as one of the film’s weakest aspects — something a biopic of St Joan is never really going to get over. Still, there’s plenty to marvel at, from the gory action sequences that recall “Army of Darkness” as much as “Braveheart,” to the way that Besson defines characters through action and not dialogue (more of a feat considering how many characters there are and how they are sometimes undistinguishable, visually, due to being covered in mud and blood), to the subdued, impressionistic final thirty minutes, which gets rid of the action to focus on the crisis of conscience as Joan awaits her execution. It’s here that Besson rolls the dice most fearlessly, introducing Dustin Hoffman (!) as the personification of Joan’s self-doubt. The two engage in lengthy discussions as to the nature of her spiritual visitations, with Hoffman’s voice being digitally processed to devilish dimensions — it’s the kind of thing that’s so fucking out-of-control that it ends up nearly working. In fact, it’s a quiet, eerie conclusion to a movie (with a running time of nearly three hours) that, up until this point, had been largely devoted to epic-scale battles, bloodshed and shouting. But while you can feel the internal war in Besson, between being both historically respectful and also entertaining in his singularly oversized way, this time the tonal shifts seem totally off and the film’s self-seriousness scuppers a great deal of its entertainment value. Presumably it was the poor response to “The Messenger” (both critically and commercially) that saw Besson take an uncharacteristically long break from directing (it would be 6 years before “Angel-A“) to concentrate on building his writer/producer brand.
If one were trying to pinpoint the moment when, directorially speaking, Luc Besson officially jumped the shark, “Angel-A” might be it. Tellingly, it followed the biggest gap in his directing career: the last picture he’d helmed before this was 1999’s “The Messenger” which was perhaps his first U.S. release that was met with both mixed reviews and poor box office. “Angel-A” would be justly received with even more disappointing notices. In the interim, Besson had at least hit his creative stride entrepreneurially speaking, writing, producing and then handing off to someone else to direct 11 different movies, including two films in his “Taxi” series, while also launching the “Transporter” and “District 13” franchises (that he would also write and produce). But the story that bafflingly tempted him back behind the camera centers on André (Jamel Debbouz), a gimpy two-time loser who owes money to the mob and finds that whatever meagre luck he’s ever possessed has run out. But the desperate man’s attempts to commit suicide are foiled when Angela (Rie Rasmussen) a mysterious, gorgeous, statuesque model, runs into his life. A weakling imp with no self-esteem, his idea is to run or contrive more schemes to make up the dough, but Angela is resolute in making him find confidence, inner strength and resolve. Not so surprisingly (or spoilery), since it’s never handled subtly, Angela, aka “Angel-A” is wait for it, an angel from God sent to look after the unfortunate. While the sepia-toned cinematography with its luscious high contrast is gorgeous, this is about the only thing to admire here. Tonally a mix of “It’s A Wonderful” life sentimentality, “Wings of Desire” fantasy (both done without any of those films’ finesse), treacly romance and Besson’s trademark self-conscious camera moves, “Angel-A” is all superficial style and zero substance. Worse, the would-be Howard Hawks-ian ratatat back-and-forth between the two mismatched lovers is just annoying. A regular bit actor, Debbouze works fine in small parts (see “Amélie”), but isn’t really lead material. Likewise, Rassmussen, a fashion model turned actress is one-note (slyly sexy), until she reaches the emotional climax where she turns all shrill and histrionic. It seems he may have been pitching for charming fairy tale, a genre he would try again, but while Besson checks off all the ingredients necessary, here he concocts something cloying, forced and tremendously tedious.
“The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec ” (2010)
Having heard nothing from Besson as director (bar the animations of his “Arthur and the Invisibles” series) since the disastrous “Angel-A,” it might have seemed that whatever he tried next was going to have to be a step up. Alas, it wasn’t. With apologies to “Amélie” and the early works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (“Delicatessen,” “City Of Lost Children”), fantastical French whimsy has reached a nadir in recent years. A unique style perfected by the aforementioned duo, with their brand of affected fantasy, eccentric grotesquerie and idiosyncratic dark comedy (a mix of gaslamp fantasy meets steampunk with visual magic thrown in for good measure), that “genre,” if you will, has seen shallow returns in recent years (see Jeunet’s own “Micmacs” which felt like a parody of that style and Michel Gondry’s explosion in the whimsy factory “Mood Indigo”). Now, we can add one more film to the list: Luc Besson’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.” A cloying fantasy adventure film and an adaptation of a comic book of the same name, ‘Adèle Blanc-Sec’ tries its best to be a mix of “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” and “Amélie” with mostly eye-rolling results. Set in the early 20th Century, mostly in Paris, a independent-minded, sassy adventurer/popular novelist gets involved in a quest and a mystery. Her sister is dying, so she goes to wake a Egyptian Pharaoh mummies’ doctor in order to giver her sibling a new life. Simultaneously, an aged professor friend of hers uses telepathic techniques he’s been experimenting with and wakens a 136 million year-old cretaceous egg that grows into a gigantic Pterodactyl that is terrorizing Paris. Can she find the giant reptile? Can she save her professor friend from certain execution for unleashing the monster? What about the mummy, her sister and all that jazz? While Louise Bourgoin is a charming find as the lead (U.S. audiences may remember her from “The Girl from Monaco” two years prior), the plot is fantastically silly, and so is the movie. Besson grabs three or four different storylines from the original comic book and fuses them into one big clunky mess, but it makes the heart of the movie — Adèle trying to save her sister — a total afterthought. On top of being disorganized in its basic character goals, it traffics in the type of broad, ungainly whimsy and comedy that only toddlers could adore (bad CGI and prosthetics don’t help either). Three years after that fact, ‘Adèle Blanc-Sec’ finally landed on a official DVD release in the U.S. last month, to little fanfare and its easy to understand why. Besson has never been a subtle filmmaker, but when those brash tendencies are tied (as they have been too often recently) to silly plotting and a derivative lack of originality or inspiration, the results are very poor. A romp magnifique this is not, and if for a moment you might think that’s to do with the flightiness of the concept, just remember his next directorial film “The Lady” would take as its lofty subject Burmese opposition leader and near-living-saint Aung San Suu Kyi, and would only be marginally better received, and just as turgid.
Besson’s thriving EuropaCorp production company and his unbelievably successful track record in writing disposable B-movie thrillers and farming them out to a Leterrier or a Megaton before they spawn inevitable franchises means that we can hardly accuse him of slacking off in terms of work ethic or financial success. But from a directorial standpoint, it’s impossible to ignore that he’s been off the boil for a long time now, a downward trajectory that “The Family,” for all its glossy premise and high-profile U.S. cast, only seems to confirm. His own response to the cool critical reception he’s gained of late is lighthearted enough, however. When we spoke last week he said: “My mission is to do the best that I can. And that’s it. For the rest, you never know. I stopped thinking about it twenty years ago.” But twenty years ago, Besson was directing “Leon,” and was a very different director to the one we have now. We sincerely hope he finds his way back to the kind of giddy, high-concept, inventive filmmaking that he made his name with back in the day. —Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez