Luc Besson's work, with the exception of his first feature film (Le Dernier Combat) which was liked by almost all those engaged in film criticism, has been acclaimed by the popular film journals (such as Première) and excoriated by the more serious ones (such as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif). Stylisation and excess are hallmarks of Besson's work. Le Dernier Combat, Besson's first feature, came out in 1983 and Léon in 1994. According to Anne Parillaud and Besson, the message of Nikita and Léon is not one of violence but the idea that people who are full of despair and missing love are not alone. All Besson's films have violence at the core of the narrative. This book presents a broad overview of Besson's work to date and an analysis of his films through a number of theoretical avenues in an attempt to show the many levels on which one can read the narratives. It examines questions of violence, particularly in relation to the so-called youth in crisis, and discusses these issues within the context of surveillance and technology. The book looks at Besson's films as the mise-en-scène of the double cult of technology and commodified capitalism within the context of technology and the body. Display and excess are fundamental aspects of Besson's characters' performance. It investigates the issues of transgressive 'child' and absent parent in Besson's films and is going to do so through the triple-optic of genre and gender construction, regression and pathology, resistance and power relations.
Before considering the two film adaptations of François Mauriac’s novel Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927) and because it stands as a fulcrum of so many narrating voices, themselves constructed out of obsession, desire, repression, suffocation and a sense of futility, it behoves us to lift the layers away one by one, as one would uncover a palimpsest, to understand these meanings, first, before proceeding further. There have been two film adaptations of Thérèse Desqueyroux; one in 1962 by Georges Franju, in which the script was co-authored between the director and Mauriac; the second, in 2012, by Claude Miller in which the script was co-authored between director and Natalie Carter (who had already written two other adaptations with Miller). The lack of mystery and ambiguity surrounding Miller’s interpretation of Thérèse’s character is undoubtedly the weakness of his film. His simplification of the narrative (going from light to darkness as he put it) meant that he also reduced his other characters to two-dimensions. Anne in this instance is yet another clear example. Mauriac’s Anne, as Thérèse, is an unruly female; not, as Miller’s version would have us believe, one who belongs to ‘la race implacable des simples’. She will become so, because the family eventually wins the struggle and she marries Deghuilem; but she has known love, something none of the others have experienced. Until she is made to come to heel (by her parents and Bernard) she is a free spirit, quite wild (her love of shooting, her passion for Jean). The manner in which she kills the bird in front of Thérèse is particularly revealing when we compare Miller’s to Franju’s version. In the former, Anne snaps the wood-pigeon’s neck in a swift brutal gesture (much as Bernard would). In the latter, Anne gently strokes the little bird (a stonechat?), then slowly applies pressure on its throat to slowly extinguish life. In Miller’s version, Anne appears unambiguously hard. Franju’s Anne appears a complex contradiction, both sentimental and cruel. So, even as Thérèse assures us she is pure and innocent, an ambiguity arises.
This chapter talks about constructing subjectivity in the absence of the father and the mother. By reducing subjectivity to a fixed gendered entity (as masculine or feminine), dominant ideology (patriarchy) normalises away questions of power relations. The chapter investigates the issues of transgressive 'child' and absent parent in Luc Besson's films and is going to do so through the triple-optic of genre and gender construction, regression and pathology, resistance and power relations. It first considers the genres that Besson's films exemplify. It is noteworthy that in the main his films are hybrid genres. Thus Subway is a musical and a thriller. Léon is a thriller and a melodrama. Nikita is a film noir and a futurist fantasy. Only Le Dernier Combat and Le Grand Bleu appear to be single generic types.
The return to science fiction– Le Cinquième Element, 1997
Luc Besson's Le Cinquième Elément appears in some respects to mark both a new departure in his work and the closure of a circle. Closure because in this film Besson returns to the generic form that launched his career, the science fiction. Besson's concerns for his audience and his belief in his bardic function remain unchanged, however. The genesis of Le Cinquième Elément bears similarities with Besson's earlier film Le Grand Bleu in that he had written a rough sketch for it in his early, teen years. It is indeed a film of excess, a special effects blockbuster which some critics have accused of trying to imitate Hollywood and singularly failing, a poor pastiche of Blade Runner, and so on. Besson's Le Cinquième Element opened the 50th Cannes Film Festival in May 1997.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book provides a broad overview of Luc Besson's work to date and an analysis of his films through a number of theoretical avenues in an attempt to show the many levels on which one can read the narratives. The visual excitement of a Besson movie must not be forgotten or lost in all of this. His films are brilliantly shot and edited. The music score is often loud and raucous, and it pulsates with energy. The very significant appeal of Besson's work is of course visual pleasure. In its comic-ness and violence and, too, in its visual pyrotechnics, Besson's cinema is an exhibitionist cinema. The mystery that surrounds the making and the release of any of his films is also part of the spectacularisation effect.
The quotations from Luc Besson's book of the film Léon aptly sums up this director's entire conflictual relationship with the so-called heavyweights of French film criticism and to a certain degree with the French film industry itself. Besson's work, with the exception of his first feature film (Le Dernier Combat) which was liked by almost all those engaged in film criticism, has been acclaimed by the popular film journals and excoriated by the serious ones (such as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif). Besson's enormous success, particularly since the great popularity of Le Grand Bleu, has meant he has had considerable freedom to dictate his terms. Cinema Papers criticises the silliness of Besson's work and goes on to quote Michel Ciment who argues that whilst Besson may be an avid disciple of Stanley Kubrick and seek to emulate his visceral style, he lacks anything substantial to say.
Stylisation and excess are hallmarks of Luc Besson's work. Besson's first feature, Le Dernier Combat, came out in 1983, Léon, in 1994. A few weeks prior to the time that Besson came up with his idea for Le Dernier Combat, he had just completed putting the finishing touches to his scenario for Subway. Nikita was Besson's thank-you film to his audiences for saving Le Grand Bleu from oblivion. According to Parillaud and Besson, the message of Nikita is not one of violence but the idea that people who are full of despair and missing love are not alone. This idea continues with Léon. Léon raises a number of problematic issues around sexuality and regression. Léon was Besson's first full foray into international film production. The film was co-produced by Gaumont and Les Films du Dauphin on the French side, Columbia on the American and JVC on the Japanese.
All Luc Besson's films have violence at the core of the narrative. In Besson's films technology functions as an extension of this violence and it is a two-way system of surveillance and counter-surveillance that often involves death. This chapter examines questions of violence, particularly in relation to the so-called youth in crisis and discusses these issues within the context of surveillance and technology. It looks at Besson's films as the mise-en-scène of the double cult of technology and commodified capitalism within the context of technology and the body. Display and excess are fundamental aspects of Besson's characters' performance. Besson's films hold the adult gaze up for inspection and, in so doing, they serve to expose, as it were, the politics of youth-as-spectacle and the system of labelling them as outsiders. The politics of youth are then to do with the politics of spectacle.
Le Dernier combat is 'an imaginary excursion', says Luc Besson. He came to the idea of making this film when he was wandering around in the boulevard Barbes in Paris, and discovered an old film theatre all gutted out, but with cinema seats still hanging off the wall. In Le Cinquieme element, Besson brings together Jean-Paul Gaultier's intellectually transgressive costume design, Moebius-inspired surrealist set designs, and Cinemascope, and digital technology for the computer-generated images of twenty-third-century New York. The challenges around sexuality and gender performativity that Le Cinquieme element puts on display mark the film as contestatory of dominant ideology to a degree, and demarcate it strongly from the earlier Bessonian sci-fi prototype Le Dernier combat. Le Dernier combat is radical through its means of production and its ecological and anti-capitalist positioning.