Thursday, 26 September 2019

Luc Besson

An introduction?

It might seem preposterous to consider today, but there was once a time when Luc Besson was regarded by some factions of the cineaste mainstream as one of the coolest and most exciting filmmakers of his generation. For kids like me discovering movies at the end of the 1990s, Besson's name was a shorthand for a particular type of haute couture action cinema, which became a brand unto itself. A younger, more energetic cinema: lionised at the time by the generation of critics that came before us, who responded to what they perceived as Besson's subversion of the kind of mannered, bourgeois, domestic movies that typified the supposedly staid French cinema of the period.

The narrative surrounding Besson during this stage of his career was that his work cut through what many English-speaking critics saw as the pretentious or elitist nature of his native cinema, and opened it up to a new audience looking for style, action and emotional intensity. Besson's biggest hits from this period, Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990) and his supposed pinnacle, Léon (or The Professional, 1994), delivered mainstream excess, action and violence, but with a creative eye for the kind of fashionable stylisation often found on the margins of the European art-house.

The films were fast-moving, erupting onto the screen with a burst of kinetic action and physicality - shoot-outs and car-chases taken shot-for-shot from either Hollywood or Hong Kong genre cinema: here supplanted into the suburbs of surrounding Paris, an alien's view of New York city, or some far off intergalactic setting - but they also contained an emphasis on oddball characters, moments of comedic eccentricity, and a romantic tone at odds with the scenes of violence and brutality. In short: Besson's films apparently made audiences feel as if they were watching something with a highbrow or artistic sensibility, while at the same time satiating them with a surface level sensationalism, simple plotting and characters devoid of agency or depth.

Reading Susan Hayward's eponymous 1998 study on Besson and his films (published as part of the series 'French Film Directors', which includes similar volumes on everyone from Jean Epstein and Georges Melies, to Catherine Breillat and Leos Carax), is currently doing for me what great criticism should: making me think about the work from a different perspective; opening it up to broader, more critical readings; placing the films into wider, political, social and aesthetic frameworks; providing context and justification.

Luc Besson [Susan Hayward/Manchester University Press, 1998]:

Hayward's book was published at the exact moment when Besson was at the pinnacle of his early career. The time at which infant millennials with a burgeoning interest in all things film, like myself, were being told by the still young critics of Generation X that this Besson guy was the real deal. A year later Besson would release his first outright critical and commercial failure, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and from here would descend further along a path that has led to terrible films like Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), Lucy (2014) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), among others.

Given this late career shift, which has seen Besson progress from being someone known primarily as a writer and director of acclaimed cult cinema to a writer and producer of successful B-movies, such as Taxi (1998), The Transporter (2002), Taken (2008) and their resulting franchises, all of which were box-office hits despite often terrible reviews, it would be interesting to see a revised and updated version of Hayward's book that includes the filmmaker's subsequent efforts, as well as an examination of some of the more contentious elements of his work - specifically his depiction of women - against the sexual assault allegations that have since been levelled against him.

Today, Besson isn't considered very "cool" by the mainstream film community, and with good reason. Of his work over the past twenty-two years I've only found merit in two of his features: Angel-A (2005) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010). Even some of his earlier films that impressed me as an adolescent have since been re-evaluated and have fallen significantly in my estimation. However, a combination of nostalgia and the persuasive writing of Hayward is nonetheless making me curious to go back and look at these films in an attempt to discuss how they tie into the narrative of Besson's career, and his often problematic and contradictory worldview.

In the spirit of this, I've written some thoughts on Besson's films, beginning with his first, the wordless post-apocalyptic fantasy The Last Battle (1983) and its links to the director's later science-fiction efforts, specifically The Fifth Element (1997) and the aforementioned "Valerian." However, I'm still struggling to find a point to this that might be worth making: a reason for committing to the article, as both a project and a theme, given my absence of any genuine passion for the subject matter. In a world where so many films that are great and meaningful to me are ignored and denigrated by the popular culture, is it really worth my time to be analysing Besson's work from a perspective of cynicism? I don't know. Hopefully as I delve deeper into Hayward's discourse, which is so-far fascinating, some points and counter points will become clear.