When I hear others disparage your recent career and even comment that your best is behind you, I think about your vision and your films and I want to yell out “never sell this visionary short!” And so, I chose the top 10 projects that make Luc Besson one of the greatest French filmmakers ever and prove the worth of seeing his work in the future.
Okay granted of late the Arthur films and The Family have not helped his cause but when you look at a whole career, this is when his value cannot be denied. Even from the start, Besson’s projects set themselves apart from the standard French fare that film fans were used to. From the black and white nearly dialogue free feature debut, Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), it was clear that you would go onto do some amazing things. This debut was the first of many projects with Jean Reno and it told a post-apocalyptic story of three men rattling around the bones of a French city and how all survivors having lost the power of speech makes for a strange story of survival and how the last battle sets one man free.
After my late arrival in ‘camp Besson’ I found not only his debut mentioned above but The Big Blue as well. This is an amazing story of childhood members of the same village, Enzo and Jacques and how their love of water and the sea takes them via different routes to the highly dangerous open water diving sport scene and delves into Jacques almost spiritual connection with the water and the dolphins he spends time with. That which makes this film special is too numerous to list, but foremost of is its soul searching resolution.
Then comes your first critically acclaimed effort La Femme Nikita. Nikita, is a young lady who with two Nihilist friends commits robbery and murder while on drugs. After her trial she is not executed or taken to prison, but to a school for special government operatives. She is told that Nikita no longer exists and she will be trained to pay back society for what she has done, as a spy/assassin. This film was so iconic that it influenced espionage tropes to come in filmmaking at large. It also generated an inferior ‘Hollywood’ remake and television series.
Four short years later after two widely heralded documentaries you release the legendary Léon: The Professional. Not only do you possess the wisdom to cast Jean Reno a second time in his most riveting and endearing role to date, you take a chance on a then unknown 12 year old by the name of Natalie Portman. If that weren’t enough to make this thing special you rev up a brilliantly villainous Gary Oldman as bad to the bone drugged up cop. What transpires is movie magic that tells the story of that young girl trying to survive as her entire family is slaughtered by cops and she turns to the kindly next door neighborhood hitman. This film is so hallowed that it sits easily in my top 100 films of all time!
Three for three on feature films and next up is the revered The Fifth Element. This Oscar-nominated film set 250 years in the future where life as we know it is threatened by the arrival of all-encompassing Evil. Only the Fifth Element (Milla Jovovich) can stop the Evil from extinguishing life, as it tries to do every five thousand years. She is assisted by a former elite commando turned cab driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis,) who is, in turn, helped by religious expert Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm,) and galactic celebrity, Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker.) Unfortunately, Evil is being assisted by Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman,) who seeks to profit from the chaos that Evil will bring, and his alien mercenaries. The epic nature of all that is shoe-horned into this film, really requires its own article. Suffice it to say for me it’s included in my personal top 50 scifi films of all time.
Just when you might wonder if Luc could dabble outside the realm of quirky or unique fictitious story telling he releases The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. In what is clearly the finest modern take on the story since the 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Besson calls again on Milla Jovich to helm the heroine and uses a star studded cast to re-tell the iconic tale. Though he didn’t always stick close to the accurate facts, Luc also doesn’t apply the typical hero stuff you would expect in a biopic like this. It has many facets to its portrayal and gave me space to make up my own mind about the character Joan of Arc. And that is exactly what I liked most about this version of her story.
5 years later brings us to Luc’s black and white rumination on self esteem and redemption. The widely unknown 2005 French language masterpiece Angel-A. Clearly demonstrating yet again his knack for brilliant casting and engrossing dissertations of human nature, he again creates screen magic. Tapping relative unknowns Jamel Debbouze as Andre and Rie Rasmussen as Angel-a, Luc weaves a stunning gritty fairy tale about down and out Andre and the Angel from heaven sent to save him. Using such a physical dichotomy as the diminutive Andre and Amazon statured Angel-A, the story unfolds like a personal catharsis that is a journey and process and not an end. Once again it makes it to a top 100 both transformative and romance film of all time for me.
Last of the Directorial work I will cover just to make sure there isn’t any doubt about Luc’s ability with adaptation and historical content I present 2011’s The Lady. This is an epic and true love story about how an extraordinary couple and family sacrifice their happiness at great human cost for a higher cause. It’s the story of Activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris. Despite distance, long separations, and a dangerously hostile Burma regime, their love endures until the very end as she becomes the woman who is at the core of Burma’s democracy movement. It’s a poigniant story of devotion and human understanding set against a background of political turmoil which continues to this day.
As I pause here and look back across the vista of what I have covered there isn’t a director living that wouldn’t dream of such a career. But I would be remiss in not mentioning some of his screenplay work. In addition to all his work above he wrote or co-wrote, Wasabi, The Transporter films, District B13, Taken and Lockout.
So I don’t know how Lucy, his next feature will turn out, but I know one thing, I will be eager to give it a chance and to see it! Keep doing what you do Luc, you will always have a fan of your work.