The Big Blue
(Le Grand Bleu)

             In 1988, French filmmaker Luc Besson was still a virtual unknown
     in the USA. He had established his reputation in his homeland with the
     strikingly visual
Le Dernier Combat (1983), a virtually wordless,
     black-and-white apocalyptic drama, and the gritty
Subway (1985) which
     featured strong performances by Isabelle Adjani and Christopher Lambert.
     After honing his movie-making skills, Besson turned to a very personal
     project,
Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue, a romantic drama about divers.
     His parents had been diving instructors and the writer-director had been
     an avid scuba diver since his adolescence, at one time even considering
     a career as a marine biologist. Inspired by footage of world champion
     free diver Jacques Mayol, Besson spent nearly 12 years developing the
     project.
The Big Blue, Besson's first feature in English and featuring an
     international cast, became a hit in France but was a box-office
     disappointment in both England and the States, mostly because some
     20 minutes was cut, a different ending was imposed and the original  
     score by Eric Serra was replaced with music by Bill Conti.

             Besson, of course, went on to direct hits like
Nikita/La Femme
       Nikita
(1990), Léon/The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element
     (1995). Before embarking on what proved to be another setback (1999's
     intriguing but deeply flawed
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,
     he returned to
The Big Blue and oversaw its restoration. That new
     "director's cut" is now enjoying a theatrical release a dozen years later
     in America.

             The film opens with a flashback prologue, shot by cinematographer
     Carlo Varini in rich tones of black and white, that establishes the rivalry
     between Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo (Jean Reno) that dated to
     their childhoods. Jacques opts to become a diver and challenge the sea
     in part because he witnessed the death at sea of his father. Both men
     have managed to confound scientists by somehow managing to lower
     their heart rates and adjusting their breathing so they can reach
     record-breaking depths.

             Indeed, the rivalry between Jacques and Enzo becomes more
     serious as each raises the bar higher by descending deeper and deeper.
     Complicating matters is Johanna (Rosanna Arquette) an insurance
     claims investor who encounters Jacques in Peru before eventually
     pursuing a romance with him.

             While Besson's script (written with an assist by American Robert
     Garland) is fairly schematic and pushes the mythic qualities just a
     bit too much, the film proves enjoyable if a bit long. There are several
     underwater sequences that are fascinating, including a few where
     Jacques swims with a dolphin, that are breathtaking. Jean Reno,
     who would go on to star in Besson's
The Professional, is excellent as
     the blustery Enzo. Reno captures a man who is larger than life with ease,
     but he also tempers his performance with humor. With his piercing eyes
     and dark hair, Jean-Marc Barr projects the appropriately otherworldly
     aura of Jacques, a man more at home in the water than on land.
     Unfortunately, he and Rosanna Arquette don't really generate much
     chemistry. The actress manages to acquit herself well enough, but by
     the climactic scenes, Arquette seems more at sea than the film.

             Besson's strength as a filmmaker is his canny visual sense and
     his ability to elicit strong performances from his cast. In spite of
     restoring the cut footage and especially Serra's lush music,
THE BIG
       BLUE
remains problematic. It's definitely beautiful to look at and is
     well-acted by its cast, yet it doesn't completely gel. Still, it's worth a
     look, particularly on a large screen where it was meant to be viewed.


                                     Rating:              B
                                     MPAA Rating:      R                                       
                                     Running time:     163 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.