Le grand bleu (THE BIG BLUE) [1988]

I had no idea that The Big Blue had any sort of reputation whatsoever until some friends of mine from Europe started talking about it one day like it was the best movie ever made. Turns out it was the most financially successful French film of the decade, raking in millions in its own country while doing modest business in the States. My memory of the movie is limited to the preview that ran on TV back in the summer of '88. I thought the image from an apparent dream sequence of an upside down ocean creeping down from the ceiling to meet a sweat-soaked man lying in bed looked really cool, and that visual always stuck with me. And since it was the only pre-Messenger Besson film I'd never seen I thought I'd give it a shot.

The feel of the movie is pretty epic, opening with a black & white prologue (no musical overture tho) following two boys who live on an island and are excellent swimmers. The little kid who's going to grow up to be the main character looks like a little kid version of Lambert - it's too bad he couldn't do that movie! The other kid, even if you didn't know he was in the movie, is unmistakably going to end up being Jean looks like they shrunk him. The Reno kid is a hot shot Italian, showing off to all his friends and constantly trying to get the other young swimmer to compete with him, retrieving coins from the ocean's floor and the like. The photography in these early scenes is gorgeous, especially the underwater footage of the boy feeding an eel that peaks out of an opening in a coral hill. But the kid's father dies in a horrible diving incident (which seemed to me to be an easily preventable/salvagable accident that got botched somehow) and we cut to the present, where kid Reno is now regular Reno, a deep sea diving champion who takes it upon himself to find the other kid, now a shy-looking fella with a receding hairline named Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr, later of several Lars von Trier movies), to bring him to this island they're on for a little friendly competiton.

Jacques has become a super-powered diving guy, on demand all around the country. People say he's turned into a fish, one marks astonishingly that Jacques even functions diving under the ice in subzero temperatures: "the blood goes straight to his brain, the limbs shouldn't even be functioning!" This is interesting because I always wondered about a movie where a guy with superhuman powers doesn't use his powers to save people, he just uses it in his everyday job. I guess Jacques is the equivalent of Aquaman (especially later when he starts having "special time" with certain sea creatures), only he's an Aquaman who punches the clock and takes home a paycheck. If somebody in real life actually had superpowers I guess that's what they'd probably settle for - not too many reports these days of mad scientists trying to take over the planet and what have you. Anyway, this guy's water prowess does work for him in other ways: it brings him and his pecks to the attention of one Rosanna Arquette.

The film takes place in all sorts of romantic settings, with locations in Greece, Peru, French Riveria, New York, Sicily, the Virgin Islands, but the only real sense of geography is in the underwater sequences. As I mentioned before, Besson was an expert diver and had intended to become a marine biologist when some kind of freak ear accident put a stop to his diving days. You can really see how much he misses the thrill of the dive and relishes the stuff shot beneath the surface, although several scenes are pretty obviously done using a water tank. The settings seem almost like arty "found locations" in Besson's films: with Dernier combat it seems like he lucked onto a condemned building his actors could run around in and demolish, Subway he managed to get a permit to run around underground, and Big Blue he scored a giant water tank. This is an appealing aspect of his early work that I think was lost the bigger his productions and special effects budgets got.

Arquette, as American insurance investigator Johana, exploits boss Griffin Dunne and defrauds the company so she can travel to Europe and be with Jacques (serves him right after the way he treated her in After Hours). Unfortunately for her, Jacques doesn't really know much about women (he's sort of sexless at first, like the all-male cast of Dernier combat and Leon). He's actually a nearly antisocial existential garbage pail, asking his pal Enzo to explain "everything" to him. ("Everything about what?" his confused chum responds). Like Fred in Subway, Jacques wants to escape society by going below, but when he's down there he "has to work really hard to think of a reason to come back up." And this is a professional deep sea diver we're talking about, so he probably understands that he doesn't have the biological make-up to survive in the ocean, making his angst all the more uncomfortably suicidal sounding: he seeks ultimate underwater transcendence but to everyone else it just sounds like he wants to be underwater, permanently. There are a lot of nice stylistic flourishes, like the walls of Jacques' hotel room fading from blue to their normal beige color to show that he's always thinking about the water and that shot of the ocean coming down on him in his hotel room from the preview. There's a genuinely scary moment where Arquette comes into the room one morning and he's a fucking mess, bleeding from his nose and mouth and looking generally like a human wreck. Life on the surface is literally a nightmare for him, and he only wants to dive (read: die).

Jacques' obsession with the sea is intense enough, but it gets a little more complicated and uncomfortable when this dolphin gets involved. The first indication of something weird going on is when Arquette finds a picture of the dolphin in the guy's wallet, in the little sleeve that would usually hold a shot of a significant other. "Huh," Arquette seems to react. "That's kinda weird." But it gets really weird after they do it for the first time: after she falls asleep, he sneaks out back to the water where the dolphin is waiting and swims off with it. Arquette wakes up and goes down to the beach, where she falls back asleep: in the morning, the dolphin is just bringing her boy back! "You were out all night?!" she demands, not believing the situation. "I was with the dolphin," he answers like it's a confession. Wow...awkward. That's just as unromantic a post-coital moment as when Nikita leaves her boyfriend locked inside the hotel bedroom while she snipers her target from the bathroom window, and even more seedy. The dolphin even pops out of the water to laugh at poor Rosanna before it swims away - what a bitch.* It reminds me of that joke about the immoral porpoise...this guy has his very own immoral porpoise! Later in the movie Jacques relates a myth to Arquette about how dolphins sometimes appear to spirit people away in the middle of the ocean which indeed is how the movie ends, with Arquette on a boat begging Jacques not to leave, informing him she's pregnant as he, barely noticing her, sinks into the big blue to rendezvous with his mereswine lover...roll credits.

Two and half hours into the movie I realized, "Holy shit - I've been watching this movie for two and half hours!" (my wife later told me she felt like I was watching it for "days"). Now I'm a guy who loves long movies, but I'm also pragmatic when it comes to deciding whether or not a film is worthy of a Blood In Blood Out running time. Then it all came back to me: fans protesting that Big Blue had been cut by 50 minutes for its American theatrical and video release. That seemed like a lot of time for a picture with a normal running time of, say, 90 to 120 minutes but, if I can manage to put this as un-Weinsteinish as possible, I could totally see where 50 minutes could be excised from The Big Blue. After Jacques' tryst with his dolphin buddy, Rosanna Arquette decides to head back for New York. There's a long montage of her hanging out around her apartment looking sad while Jacques and Enzo toil around on land not doing any diving. After a while Arquette can't shake Jacques so she calls him, they start having regular phone conversations and she ultimately decides to return just as a whole new diving competition (not the original one, which I hadn't even realized had formally concluded) is starting up. I didn't clock this segment of the movie but I'm pretty sure it ate up at least 40 minutes of film. I've never seen the American version, but if this wasn't the part they cut out I'd be very surprised: there isn't even a need for a transition! Cut from Arquette watching Jacques with the dolphin to 40 minutes later in the movie when they're hanging out wouldn't even be necessary to say it's a new diving competition, people would just assume it was the same one! I guess the loss of this part of the movie isn't entirely victimless - the second series of scenes in New York offer a better understanding of Arquette's frustration/love for the guy, and the scenes of Jacques' existence away from the ocean help establish the unbearable banality of his world outside the water, where he has to report for a crappy non-diving job and lives with a crazy uncle. The biggest lost would be the second, longer, hotter sex scene, although the editors could just use it to replace the tamer first one...or edit the two together for a super-long ultimate sex scene! Also Griffin Dunne would lose his extra appearance that makes his contribution seem more like a small part than a cameo, so that would bad I guess.

I also read that the Americans changed the ending to suggest that Jacques ends up with Johana, not the dolphin. Ignorant, close-minded Yanks!

Despite its weird developments and excessive running time I enjoyed this movie, mainly I think because of Jean Reno. He's absolutely charming as Enzo, who he plays with the kind of broad physical comedy that defined a lot of Besson's early supporting characters and ruined his later ones (Chris Tucker anybody? I thought not). His mother is constantly cooking frutti del mare and other Italian dishes that look absolutely delicious...the only scenes better than the ones in the ocean were set in his hotel room, full of smoke and bodies (most in their underwear) as plates of pasta get passed left and right. Enzo has the same obsession with competition as Jacques does with the ocean/dolphins and Jacques knows it, so it's pretty fucked up that Jacques keeps pushing the limit with his superhuman powers, forcing a clearly less in-shape Reno to keep risking his life until he inevitably "gooses" it and dies in a diving accident ("gooses" Goose in Top Gun?) Amusingly Reno dies on his back glaring up blankly in the exact same position as the end of Leon, only he doesn't hand Jacques a grenade pin as a going away gift. I think killing Enzo was a predictable mistake (although it's the only actual thing that happens in the movie after 2 1/2 hours) - it would have been more interesting to have him suffer a Besson-like injury so that he couldn't go diving again. Examining his life after being told he can never go back to the water would make images like Reno tinkering on a piano on the beach by himself even more tragic (man and I just complained about what Besson should have done with Reno in Subway...I'm too critical...should just make my own damn movie). I also think Lambert actually would have been a good choice for this role too, maybe morseo than the self-serious Jacques, although I'm glad the movie gave Reno his first big exposure in the US.

Besson doesn't strike me as the kind of director you could have a serious argument about regarding his "masterpiece." He's a lot like Lambert: he started off with classy movies and has since moved on to pulpier genre flicks, losing a lot of that arthouse cred and becoming synonymous with trashy action pics. But I'll bet his true fans definitely get into fights over which one is his best, with cases for Le dernier combat, Subway, Nikita and Leon being totally legit. The ones who want to be more controversial (or just don't know any better) would stick up for either The Fifth Element or Big Blue, but they'd be wrong. I'll bet the man himself probably says Big Blue, for personal reasons if nothing else. It's by far his most sensitive film: the Eric Serra song that runs over the ending credits is very Sting-esque. That reminds me...Leon ends with an actual Sting song. Hm...maybe Luc Besson is a lot more of an adult contemporary filmmaker than I realized. And what's this obsession with "big blue" things? The ocean, the giant alien opera diva in Fifth Element... In any case, a subject that deserves further inquiry.

John Cribbs, 8/5/10


* Coincidentally I was just watching Finding Nemo, where the fish all think dolphins are assholes. They're right - fuck dolphins!

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