2010 is already off to a busy start for Luc Besson. District 13: Ultimatum and From Paris With Love, both of which he helped to write and produce, were released on the same day earlier this month. I Love You Phillip Morris, which he executive produced, is slated for a March release, and several other films have release dates in his native France but are still awaiting international distribution. Initially known as a director of visually stylish films, Besson has recast his image since breaking onto the scene with Le Dernier Combat (1983) and reaching international fame with Nikita (1990), Léon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). The controversial, genre-bending auteur has eased off of directing and become increasingly active working behind-the-scenes for other directors. Besson formed EuropaCorp in 2000, and has since been involved with over seventy films as a producer, more than twenty of which he contributed to as a writer. This career shift challenges a traditional auteurist approach to understanding Besson's prolific body of work, as his directorial output is now quantitatively minor in comparison to his other projects. However, perhaps it speaks to the ongoing relevance of auteurist criticism that one can always find traces of his presence, in spite of Besson not always being the only proverbial cook in the kitchen.
The struggle of individuals to maintain their autonomy, in worlds (however realistic and/or fantastic) that discourage individualism, are at the heart of Besson's films. "The rules of society can hurt you but not cannot destroy you," he said in an interview in The Observer Review, "because you know that's not what life is about." His characters are outcasts, dreamers, and loners—hitmen, punks, cabbies, down on their luck con men, thieves, and even the occasional extreme free diver (an autobiographical nod to Besson's childhood dream)—but, in their own way, they are all artists, and he identifies with them as such. Such sympathies are fitting, considering Besson's own self-made entry into the motion picture industry while still a teenager. After a diving accident deprived him of the possibility of ever going pro, he made a list of things he found pleasurable, all of which had to do with the visual and narrative arts. The obvious convergence of these interests, in Besson's mind, was cinema. Having dropped out of high school, he forced his way onto movie sets and learned everything from the bottom up, eventually convincing family and friends to invest in several short films that were his first efforts as a director.
In this same way, Besson was able to fund his first feature, the dystopic Le Dernier Combat (1983). An audacious, uncompromising debut—its opening shot is of a sex doll deflating beneath a desperate man—it's an experimental sci-fi narrative shot in black-and-white CinemaScope, without dialogue. Set in a wasteland of abandoned factories and lifeless deserts, a world in which water is scarce and the sky rains dead fish, Le Dernier Combat's tapestry-like narrative concerns scavengers doing whatever is necessary to survive. The film still remains among Besson's most impressive works to date, exemplifying his epic imagination, impeccable 'Scope compositions, inventive genre reconstructions, and flair for visual storytelling that emphasizes action over dialogue.
Besson's follow-up, Subway (1985) took the rat race underground. With the exception of its irresistibly awesome opening car chase, the film is set almost entirely in the Paris subway system. Besson continues with narrative experimentation here, as its story is based around an intricate series of cat-and-mouse games between a thief (Christophe Lambert), a dissatisfied wife (Isabelle Adjani), her husband whom he robbed, and the inept police who can't seem to catch Lambert and his group of con artists. The redemptive possibilities of love and art—as well as their self-destructive potentials—is a reoccurring theme for Besson, and it forms the basis of his aquatic epic Le Grand Blue (The Big Blue) (1988). In tracing the competitive friendship between two free divers and their dangerous ambition to push their bodies beyond human limits, Besson was able to transcend his own bodily capacities: contradicting the doctors who once told him he'd never dive again, Besson shot much of the underwater footage himself. For the first time he allowed himself to photograph something aesthetically beautiful: we see not only the idealist, romantic notions that underlie Besson's vision, but also the limitless grandeur of his direction. A companion documentary film, Atlantis (1991), strives for Jean Painlevé-like anthropomorphism but ultimately falls short. The excessive emphasis on image-sound synchronization (synth funk and fast-motion editing) has dated badly.
Despite the youthful daring of Le Dernier Combat, Nikita (1990) and Léon (The Professional) (1994) are his two masterpieces: the most mature iterations of his repeated theme of love forged through violence and rebellion, and the peak of his visual expression in which style complements (but does not overshadow) the story. The titular characters are both professional killers—Nikita (Anne Parillaud, who later married and then divorced the director) is a Parisian street punk turned assassin for the state, while Léon (Besson regular Jean Reno) is an émigré hitman living in New York City. What connects them is their decision to sacrifice the safety of their marginality for love—Nikita for the affections of a grocery store clerk, and Léon for twelve-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman). (Contrary to film scholar Susan Hayward's reading, Léon and Mathilda's relationship is not pedophiliac at all, but is instead sincere, tender, and platonic). Nikita and Léon's professionalism also provides the perfect platform for Besson's skilful action choreography. Whether Nikita's kitchen gun battle or Leon's one-man defense against the entire NYPD, Besson impresses with both fluidly kinetics movement and inventive manipulation of body and space.
After the excessive, campy sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element (1997), and the miscast mess that was The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), Besson took a break from directing and formed EuropaCorp with Pierre-Ange le Pogam of Gaumont (a French production/distribution company that dates back to 1895, and which has handled all of Besson's feature films). Whereas both The Fifth Element and The Messenger suffered from (among other things) Besson's expanding epic vision that overextended (and emphasized) weak scripts with an imbalance of half-baked philosophies and half-developed characters, Taxi (1998) fails for the exact opposite reason. Written and co-produced by Besson, it is decidedly lacking in ambition. Its premise of a speed-demon taxi driver blackmailed by police to help take down a gang of German bank robbers seems borrows the plot criminal-to-police transition from Nikita, but stops there. The racing scenes don't stand up to the opening of Subway, and the jokes are as bad as anything in The Fifth Element.
To be fair, Besson's scripts have always been more like designs, blueprints that require his unique style to flesh out visually, aided by his usually spot-on casting. In the hands of other directors, however, the EuropaCorp scripts seem thinner than they should (or perhaps Besson just isn't trying as hard). The Transporter (2002) (directed by Corey Yuen, and co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) succeeds because of its full integration of character and action: Jason Statham is one with his car, and nothing will come between them. Transporter 2 (directed by Louis Leterrier, co-written by Besson and Kamen) fails when it disrupts this bond and clutters it with too many characters, and its clear that the improved Transporter 3 (directed by Olivier Megaton, co-written again by Besson and Kamen) learned from its predecessor's mistakes.
Besson's best interpreter, however, seems to be Pierre Morel. Banlieue 13 (District B13) (2004) (written by Besson and Bibi Naceri) is light on exposition, using only the briefest elements necessary to frame the parkour gymnastics that are the film's highlight. Morel understands movement like few action directors, and his direction emphasizes the natural fluidity of the body, instead of leaving it to be chopped up and manipulated in post-production as in Patrick Alessandrin's disastrous recent sequel, District 13: Ultimatum (2009). Beneath the raw violence of Morel's Taken (2008) (co-written by Besson and Kamen) is a harsh critique of American foreign policy: like Robert Aldrich in his Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Morel uses the American vigilante's uncontrollable rage to make a subversive political point. From Paris With Love (2010) (written by Adi Hasak from Besson's story) carries its politics straight into satire, with goateed, blinged-out, bald badass John Travolta delivering his anti-terrorist speech in a frenzied coke blur.
As for Besson-the-director in the 2000s, he spent the first half of the decade quiet and then turned out three films in the second half. Angel-A (2005) is about an angel (not so cleverly named "Angela") who comes to earth to help a struggling con artist learn to appreciate life. With Angela's characterization suffering a bit too much from a mother/whore dichotomy, the lustrous, black-and-white cinematography by Thierry Arbogast (Besson's regular D.P. since Nikita) is the movie's chief asset. Arthur et les Minimoys (Arthur and the Minimoys) (2006), a children's movie that mixes live action and CGI, is a cloying story, predictably direced (though Elsa Keslassy makes a good argument in Variety for the film's technical importance within the French film industry). A sequel, Arthur et la vengeance de Maltazard (Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard) (2009), has yet to be released theatrically here in New York, while part three, Arthur et la guerre des deux mondes (Arthur and the Two Worlds War) is set for release in France later this year.
The precious balance between style, action, and narrative that Besson achieved in Nikita and Léon has yet to be repeated, either in projects directed by himself or by others. The three films done in collaboration with Pierre Morel come the closest, but while they share the leanness of Besson's own work, they are clearly the work of a different director. Morel is far more cynical, and sees little interest in the themes of love and redemption that are Besson's hallmarks (Jonathan Rhys Meyers' big "love" speech at the film's climax is subverted by Travolta's brusque, belated entrance into the back of the frame). Perhaps some of this emotional or stylistic reserve might have saved Besson's post-Léon films, making them more coherent, if not less cluttered with various excesses. And yet, it's impossible to imagine the earlier films without Besson's willingness to dare and experiment with extravagant styles and lean, efficient narratives (even if they did clock in at 160 minutes, such as the case with The Big Blue). From the very beginning, Besson thought big: the dynamism of CinemaScope's widescreen format matched both the monumental landscapes (be they above- or underground, in the present or the future) and the unrelenting ambitions of his characters. There is nothing else like a close-up in CinemaScope, for as the camera gets closer to the subject, the edges of their face distort and expand beyond what is human. They become, essentially, larger than life. And, at his best, so is Besson.