The Front Page: Bye, Bye Besson

[13 September 2006]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Famed French filmmaker Luc Besson announced Monday 11, September that, after the release of his latest directorial effort, the live action and CG animated Arthur and the Minimoys (set for a 12 January release in the U.S.), he is leaving the industry to concentrate on “charity” work. It’s a semi-stunning announcement from a fairly prolific artist. Aside from the ten films he’s helmed over his career (which he lovingly refers to as his “babies”) Besson has been a major figure in International cinema. He has written scripts for such high profile action series as the Taxi films, the Transporter and it’s sequel, and two of Jet Li’s most popular efforts, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (2005) – later retitled Unleashed. Yet its as a producer where the 46 year old has truly thrived, guiding dozens of films through their creation. Without him, such efforts as District B13 (2004), Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) and the stellar slasher update Haute Tension (2003) may never have been made.

Now this announcement is really nothing new. As a matter of fact, it was sort of expected. Besson has been very vocal in interviews and comments about leaving the director’s chair after his 10th film, and apparently he is holding steadfast in this decision. Still, he does have his creative fingers in many motion picture pies. So unless this retirement includes his efforts behind a typewriter or managing a production’s bottom line, Besson will remain a very viable force behind the scenes of modern moviemaking. With that settled, the concern then becomes what we as an audience will fail to see with his departure. In essence the issue becomes what has Besson really given cinema that will be missed once he’s gone. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like very much, at least upon a fleeting first glance.

With rare exceptions, Besson’s films exist in a weird world made up of stunt work, speculation, and shootouts. Of the ten ‘children’ born in the 25 years of creating his filmic family, only three - The Big Blue, Atlantis and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - could be classified as defying the Besson basics. Two (Blue, Atlantis) are clearly based in his childhood love of the sea (Besson was raised by scuba diving instructor parents). The last, his interpretation of Saint Joan, was a far more personal undertaking for his then wife Milla Jovovich. The rest of his films – The Last Battle (1983), Subway (1985), Le Femme Nikita (1990), Leon/The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and next year’s Arthur – all maintain an awkward balance between fantasy and reality, using clear genre ideals to modify standard human stories. Some of these yarns - Element, in particular – were written while he was still a teenager, and often show their obvious adolescent ideas about heroism, love and the pathway to progress. 

There is one thing that’s certain, however; all of Besson’s films have a strong visual component. You can’t look at something like Le Femme Nikita or Leon and not be startled by the way in which this director’s camera moves. Sure, he can be too tricky and twee (Angel-A and Subway suffer from some of his more obvious cinematic tricks) and he frequently overloads the frame with more compositional elements than are necessary for the narrative. Sure, it’s an amazing looking moment when Jovovich’s character in Element stands on the ledge of a building overlooking a frighteningly futuristic New York City, but the density of the visuals actually detract from the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the scope of something when you’ve purposely rendered it infinite. Similarly, Besson believes in a primordial kind of plotting, a storyline that strongly follows a good vs. evil dynamic while sprinkling in a little eccentricity and character quirks along the way. There are always heroes and villains in a Besson film, though sometimes who’s who can be confusing and unclear. Yet thanks to their pure kinetic power, their daunting desire to light up the screen with their spectacle, a movie by Luc Besson gets a lot of logistical leeway. We appreciate the effort more than the effect.

But the fact of the matter remains, will anyone other than the Besson nation really care if this French fantasist hangs up his chapeau – at least for the time being? If Stephen Spielberg had stopped creating after a mere ten films, we would never have had Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Munich. In the case of Martin Scorsese, we’d have never seen The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas or Casino. Perhaps it’s a clear case of a filmmaker knowing his limits. Besson must sense his stylistic and substantive aspects are restricted by his areas of interest, and there’s no branching out into other forms of filmmaking. He’s become known for his hyperactive action set pieces and frequently ingenious flights of fancy. After conquering the family film (the trailer for Arthur looks interesting, to say the least) Besson must believe there is nothing left to try. And as long as he can add to the steady stream of writing/producing credits, he will almost always be around.

So don’t mourn the loss of another “visionary” filmmaker – celebrate the fact that Besson knew better than to overstay his already waning welcome. Angel-A barely got distribution in the US, and without the standard CGI stunt casting (Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Madonna are part of the English-speaking cast) it’s hard to know if the Weinstein Company would have picked up the Minimoys film for US distribution. When filmgoers are demanding remastered DVD versions of your earlier films over the delivery of something new – as is the case with Element and Leon – perhaps its time to pack your bags. Whether or not he ever really does focus on community work with kids as he says, Besson will best be remembered as a French firebrand who carved a special niche out of a tired Tinsel Town tenet. In this case, parting is not such sweet sorrow – it seems like the logical thing to do.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-front-page-bye-bye-besson/