Under the Sea
By Hugh Lilly
The 1980s was a decade of excess. In France, there was a film movement that became known as the Cinéma du look, or simply “le look.” An acute reaction to the gritty realism of 1970s French cinema, the films which fell under this critical umbrella emphasised slick aesthetics and spectacle over substance, traditional narrative and technical showmanship—though not at the expense of well-rounded characterisation—and often dwelled on young, rootless protagonists marginalised by society. The movement has its genesis in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, now recognised as a cult classic. The film’s hyper-colourful sensibility and abundance of fluorescent lighting anticipated the coming MTV boom, where music videos would use similarly flashy styles to what Beineix pioneered in 1981.
The movement was short lived: over less than ten years—1981–1990—directors Beneix, Leos Carax and Luc Besson would make a total of only seven films that critics would lump together under the label. “Le look” arguably has an ancestor in Jean-Pierre Melville, and, though it is seen as a closed historical period, lives on today in the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie in 2001; last year’s Micmacs) and the ultra-vibrant, hip fabrications of Wes Anderson. The movement was not political, except in some of its background characterisations, and often blended high and low art in the same plot.
Besson, a name perhaps best known by the mainstream for his 1997 space opera The Fifth Element, works more behind the scenes (as a producer) today than behind the camera as a director, although he has made a number of children’s films, and his 2005 film Angel-A was well-received. In 1988, he directed Le Grand Bleu—“The Big Blue”—which stands as an excellent example of “le look.” Though it sustained an intense beating at Cannes, the film sold more than 10 million tickets domestically—becoming the highest-grossing film of the decade in France—and, according to Jaime Wolf in the International Herald Tribune, “quickly became what the French call ‘un film générationnel,’ a defining moment in the culture.”
Le Grand Bleu stars Besson regular Jean Reno as a world-champion free-diver whose childhood friendship with another diver, Jacques (Lars von Trier favourite Jean-Marc Barr) is tested when they meet, after many years apart, at a competition in Sicily. Jacques has a gift for communicating with dolphins, and when he’s not in the water, is withdrawn and almost depressed: in other words, he’s drawn to the endless wonders of the titular oceanic attraction as a fat kid is to cake. An almost sibling rivalry persists between the two divers, and the affections of a young woman (Rosanna Arquette) for Jacques muddy the water more than a bit. The film’s visual splendour, which would be amazing to see in a 70mm blow-up print, is fantastic on Blu-Ray, even on a relatively small screen.
Perhaps the only major drawback is the film’s length, and its musical score. The 168-minute director’s cut presented on this disc is too long by at least half an hour, and adds unnecessary background to characters—especially Arquette’s Manhattan-based insurance clerk. (Beineix’s fantastic 1986 film 37°2 le matin [a.k.a. Betty Blue] suffered a similar problem: the director’s cut adds more than sixty minutes to the running time, considerably elongating insignificant sub-plots.)
The length of the film isn’t its only problem. Unlike Vangelis’ music for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, which perfectly fit with their films’ mood and sense of place—or Axel Foley’s theme tune for the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, which became a kitsch classic in its own right—Eric Serra’s music here sticks out like a sore thumb, and is the equivalent of Harrison Ford’s gauche multi-coloured shirt and horribly ’80s ‘retro’ skinny tie in Blade Runner. (The walking fashion disaster that is Rick Deckard is that film’s single short-sighted mistake. Before you try and call it out: Sean Young’s super-sexy Zooey Deschanel/Katy Perry-esque haircut transcends its superficial ’80s-ness to become something out of time altogether.)
Music by, say, ambient pioneer Brian Eno—whose score for For All Mankind, Al Reinert’s astoundingly good documentary about the Apollo missions, would be composed a year after Besson made Le Grand Bleu and stands as some of the composer’s best work—would have been the perfect accompaniment. Overall, though, Le Grand Bleu is a sumptuous, involving experience that puts the audience right at the center of its inviting underwater landscape.
Three years after Besson made Le Grand Bleu, he returned to the sea to film Atlantis: A World Beyond Worlds. The 79-minute marine documentary plays like a real-life version of that underwater screensaver that came with Microsoft Plus! 98—only instead of little water-bubble sounds coming out of your 16-bit SoundBlaster speakers, there’s yet more of Eric Serra’s music tinkling away. Thankfully—and perhaps due to the film’s non-narrative construct—the music does do just that: tinkle away. It’s more ambient, less up-in-yo-grill Miami Vice-ness. Although it’s not exactly unwatchable, Atlantis does feel tedious in patches—if only viewing it now, with the abundance of marine-based documentaries in recent memory in mind—and really only functions as an adjunct to Le Grand Bleu. (In France, the Blu-Ray of Le Grand Bleu comes with a copy of Atlantis, which is really how it should be, given that the two films complement one another so perfectly beautifully by design.)
In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Besson said that the burgeoning movement with which he was involved was a “revolution… occurring entirely within the industry… led by people who want to change the look of movies by making them better, more convincing and [more] pleasurable to watch.” I’d say he succeeded, at least in changing “le look” of movies—if nothing else.