Luc Besson, Larger Than Life

02/22/2010 2:00 PM |

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.