Sunday, 20 October 2019

Possible Worlds


At look at the science-fiction films of Luc Besson

To look at the three science-fiction films of the writer and director Luc Besson is to witness the journey of a life in three-acts. Each film is emblematic of a particular stage in the filmmaker's career and helps to chart what might be called a rise and fall narrative: showing the beginning, middle and end of Besson's tenure as a respected (or even respectable) figure in contemporary European cinema. The three films illustrate the best and worst of Besson's work and abilities, and are worth looking at as a parallel to his wider career.

At the age of twenty-three, Luc Besson began production on what would eventually become his first feature-length film, The Last Battle (1983). Unlike his contemporaries, Jean-Jacques Beineix - whose first film, Diva (1981), had brought pop-stylisation and a focus on youth culture to the heart of the French cinema with a story combining self-reflexive elements of film noir, action movie and alienated romanticism - and Leos Carax - who a year later would centre his own cinema on an exploration of twenty-something existentialism in the suburban black and white wanderings of Boy Meets Girl (1984) - Besson wasn't drawn to filmmaking because of any great passion for the medium. Growing up with an interest in comic books and deep sea diving, Besson fell into movies when a diving accident left him unable to continue his chosen profession. He turned to writing and subsequently to odd jobs on film sets, before graduating to the role of director on various TV commercials and music videos.

Perhaps due in part to his back-story and the fact that his aesthetic and thematic preoccupations had yet to be coloured by filmic conventions or mainstream expectations, The Last Battle remains an anomaly in Besson's career: a near wordless, black and white, post-apocalyptic fantasy about two desperate warriors fighting for possession of the last surviving woman. Brief scenes of action and humour, predicative of the path Besson would later take, are certainly evident, but ultimately it's a film more concerned with atmosphere, symbolism and ideas.

For those familiar with Besson's later efforts, such as his recent action movies, the mononymic double-bill of Lucy (2014) and Anna (2019) respectively, The Last Battle might seem like a challenge. Finding its aesthetic identity halfway between an esoteric art-house picture, like Claude Faraldo's similarly wordless satire Themroc (1973), and a low-budget semi-exploitation movie, like George Miller's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), it remains a far cry from the slick, unpretentious, mainstream movies that now dominate Besson's oeuvre.


The Last Battle [Luc Besson, 1983]:

While one could take Besson's choice of shooting in black and white as an artistic statement, I think it's something more practical. Besson wants to show a stylised world: a world without colour. Black and white expresses this in the literal sense. While one could look at these images and see something of Tarkovsky, I think Besson's real influence and inspiration comes directly from the black and white printing of certain comic books.


The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec [Jacques Tardi, 1976]:

For example.


Themroc [Claude Faraldo, 1973]:

The Last Battle takes place in a world without language. While set in a potential future ravaged by war or disaster, it's an image of the future informed by the distant past. The regression of characters and conditions to an almost medieval of even pre-historic level, seems to owe something to Themroc, another absurdist film in which language has become inexpressive as a symptom of societal collapse.


Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior [George Miller, 1981]:

The Road Warrior is another film that views the future through a reflection of the past, finding in its ravaged wastelands something redolent of the American west. As one of the most influential films of the 1980s, it's hard not to see the image of Mel Gibson as the battle warn scavenger in the conception of the central characters of Besson's first feature.

Like Miller's film, the world of The Last Battle is one of rubble and ruin. The protagonist, another brooding survivor scavenging the wastelands for scrap metal and car parts to construct a primitive glider, takes shelter in a high rise office building marooned in the middle of an arid desert. Into this world, a gang of feral criminals seek retribution from the scavenger, who has previously invaded the inner-sanctum of their scrapheap compound; another reminder of the autogeddon nightmares of Miller's aforementioned film.

In the image of this graveyard of wrecked cars Besson latches onto something previously touched upon by both Jean-Luc Godard in his proto-apocalyptic masterpiece Week End (1967) and the English author J.G. Ballard in his unsettling psychological novel "Crash" (published 1973): in short, the image of the automobile as a symbol for the twentieth century, with wider connotations of escape, freedom, consumer consumption, death and civilisation. For both Godard and Ballard, the car crash is a shorthand for the collapse of civilisation: a sign the things have stopped moving; that the world and life have collided with some unmovable object and reached a standstill. The same seems true for Besson.


Week End [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967]:


The Last Battle [Luc Besson, 1983]:

It's perhaps in part due to the cult nature of The Last Battle that Besson's subsequent films were treated more like art-house variations on mainstream genres rather than as mainstream movies with pretentions to depth. While not characteristic of the Besson of recent decades, The Last Battle nonetheless establishes many of the key themes and preoccupations that have continued to develop throughout the filmmaker's subsequent work: stoic, almost childlike warriors trapped in a cycle of violence; an older mentor figure living in seclusion; an emphasis on worlds and world-building; a problematic view of women as prizes or possessions; a high-style approach that results in a lingering atmosphere and countless arresting images.

As his first feature-length science-fiction film, The Last Battle endears itself, albeit vaguely, to two of Besson's later films within the same genre: the excellent The Fifth Element (1997) and the dreadful Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). Each film shows the development (or corruption) of the Besson aesthetic as it moves further and further away from the wordless, abstract, dreamlike, black and white stylisation of the film in question to become something that appears closer to the work of any other mainstream Hollywood practitioner.

At his peak in the 1990s, Besson was one of the filmmakers who defined the cinematic zeitgeist. Taking a healthy influence from Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam (themselves heavily influenced by French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville) and then filtering their particular brand of heightened heroic bloodshed back through the iconography of comic books, fashion photos, pop videos, advertising and a particular brand of Gallic eccentricity, Besson succeeded in created influential works, such as La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon (The Professional, 1994), all leading towards the completion of his long-gestating passion project (and return to science-fiction), The Fifth Element.


The Fifth Element [Luc Besson, 1997]:

Taking a small measure of influence from the French comic book artist and writer Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, The Fifth Element is a dazzling visual achievement that never feels generic or derivative of other films. It's a great example of a filmmaker being given the biggest budget of their career but still producing something that is absolutely infused with their own personality and recognisable cinematic aesthetic.

On its release, The Fifth Element was a film that looked like nothing else. Its imagery, scale, effects and imagination were extraordinary. No other mainstream blockbuster released in 1997 could compare to its ambition and originality. Even now, over twenty years later, it remains a unique, even daring work of big budget, high-concept weirdness. A perfect synthesis of Besson's comic book influences and his own pop-cinema aesthetic, which had been developing across his previous films.

Like The Last Battle, Besson's The Fifth Element encapsulates everything that is great about the director's work - his visual imagination, his propensity for action, his post-modernism, his dopey, if not naive sense of romanticism -  but also its glaring flaws. Besson is hopeless at comedy, both visual and verbal, and yet insists on peppering his work with comedic 'beats', as if terrified that the films will seem self-serious if robbed of such moments of would-be mirth. He allows actors to over-emote to almost pantomime levels, turning characters into caricatures; less fully-formed human beings than a collection of verbal or physical tics. Worst of all, he's entirely deficient when it comes to the creation of female characters, and has a truly terrible grasp of modern sexual politics.

One of the things I'd like to look at in a later post is Besson's supposed feminism. It speaks to the dearth of strong female characters (and strong female voices) in the action genre of the 1980s and early 1990s that Besson's work was ever considered empowering, but apparently it was. Give a girl a gun and let her play as dirty as the boys and suddenly you're not just subverted genre tropes, you've created a movement: but is this empowerment or male fantasy? Besson's feminist credentials were deeply problematic even before the recent sexual assault allegations made against him in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the thread of sexism that runs throughout his work is already manifest in the characterisation of Leeloo, played here by Milla Jovovich.


The Fifth Element [Luc Besson, 1997]:

Though ostensibly a film aimed at family audiences, Besson indulges in several scenes of casual female nudity. In each instance, the nudity is presented as matter-of-fact and non-sexualised, but it's also deeply voyeuristic and often objectifies the character at her most vulnerable.

Leeloo is the archetypical Bessonian heroine. She's a lean, athletic warrior-woman capable of seducing and destroying men with her physicality. She looks like a fashion model and freely objectifies herself. She's also completely childlike, simple-minded and devoid of agency. She obeys the men who act as her guardians and seems pre-programmed to fall in love with them. While a talented fighter and led by a noble cause, she's ultimately a prop, there to be used by the hero (and director) to engender sympathy, compassion, action or titillation. The pattern of the Bessonian heroine is simple: shut up, look great and remain subservient to the male lead.

Leeloo survives as a character thanks to Jovovich. As an actor she instils the character with a real warmth and emotion that gives her a complexity perhaps lacking on the page. She also has a genuine chemistry with her co-star Bruce Willis, which makes a tired romantic wish-fulfilment sub-plot actually work. Despite the shortcomings of the character as written and the casual sexism that features in the majority of Besson's screenplays, Jovovich turns in a remarkable performance here, elevating both the film and the character to iconic levels, and finding some sense of humanity and vulnerability in the director's flight of adolescent fantasy.

If The Fifth Element was an example of Besson being ahead of the curve in his use of modern special effects, prosthetic work and computer generated imagery to create a fully immersive and engaging world, then "Valerian" is an example of a filmmaker playing catch up. On the surface of it, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like a return to the kind of filmmaking and storytelling found in The Fifth Element. However, the appalling narrative structure and fatal miscasting of the two comic book heroes, leave the film dead on arrival. Both lead actors, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, have a vacant, dead-eyed quality to them, lacking both the personality and charisma necessary for the audience to feel invested in their adventures. Furthermore, the sub-Phantom Menace (1999) world-building and horribly dated sexual politics, only work to remind the audience how redundant and archaic the film is by the standards of the day.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Luc Besson, 2017]:

Arriving after a decade of innovative special effects driven movies by filmmakers as diverse as George Lucas, James Cameron, Lana and Lily Wachowskis and Alfonso Cuarón, to say nothing of an entire decade's worth of large-scale CGI spectacle offered by Marvel Studios' unending glut of superhero content, such as The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), "Valerian" doesn't have the immediate wow factor that The Fifth Element once had. While the earlier film had pegged Besson as an innovator, "Valerian" feels like imitation.

To compare Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to The Last Battle shows how far Besson has travelled as a filmmaker. While narratively inert, vaguely sketched and not always engaging, The Last Battle is nonetheless the work of a filmmaker following a set of instincts that aren't dictated by commerce or marketability. It builds on familiar influences, like The Road Warrior and its second-hand allusions to Italian Westerns, comic books and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and creates from it something that feels different and new.

The Last Battle remains a great showcase for the early Besson aesthetic: his keen eye for framing and use of the landscape and architectural spaces to define his characters and their worlds is already evident. It's also a film that connects to politics, albeit vaguely, illustrating the lack of prospects that young people were facing in the France of the early 1980s, and the idea of subcultures and surrogate families, which would be further explored in the director's subsequent film Subway (1985). By comparison "Valerian" looks like any other big budget fantasy film released in the 2010s. Real-world politics are largely absent, which is fine: The Fifth Element wasn't political either. But The Fifth Element does succeed on a  a level of pop-artistry and post-modern invention, which can't be said about "Valerian."

To look at these three films is to see an illustration of the rise and fall of Luc Besson. From his beginnings as a maker of modest cult cinema that was visually distinctive and thematically interesting, to the maker of influential pop-cinema - where his imagery captured the opulence, scale and colour of classic comic books long before Hollywood had caught up to their potential - and finally beyond, to the lazy, generic filmmaker comfortable enough to recycle other people's innovations while struggling to evoke past glories.