Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 18 March 1959. Family : Married actress-model Milla Jovovich, 1997; divorced 1999. Has a daughter with actress Anne Parillaud. Career: Spent his childhood travelling with his parents, who were scuba diving instructors; wrote the first drafts of his films Le Grand bleu and The Fifth Element while still in his teens, mid-1970s; first came to Hollywood, 1977; worked as an assistant on films in Hollywood and Paris, as well as first assistant director for several advertising films, late 1970s-early 1980s; directed first feature, Le Dernier Combat , 1983; formed his own production company, Les Films du Loups, which eventually became Les Films du Dauphins; directed a Loreal commercial featuring his wife, Milla Jovovich,1997. Awards: Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film Critics Prize, Fantasporto Audience Jury Award-Special Mention, Best Director, and Best Film, for Le Dernier Combat, 1983; Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon-Best Director-Foreign Film, for La Femme Nikita, 1990; Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, for Nil by Mouth, 1997; Best Director Cesar Award, for The Fifth Element, 1997. Address: 33 rue Marbeauf, 75008 Paris, France.
L'Avant dernier (short) (+ pr)
Le Dernier Combat (+ pr, sc)
Subway (+ pr, sc)
Kamikaze (co-d with Didier Grousset, + pr)
Le Grand bleu ( The Big Blue ) (+ sc, lyrics, camera op, submarine crew)
La Femme Nikita ( Nikita ) (+ sc, song)
Atlantis (+ ph, ed)
The Professional ( Leont ) (+ sc)
The Fifth Element (+ co-sc)
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (+ co-sc)
Le Grand Carnaval (Arcady) (2nd unit d)
Taxi Boy (Page) (tech advisor)
Point of No Return (Badham) (based on La Femme Nikita sc)
Nil by Mouth (Oldman) (pr)
Taxi (Pirès) (sc, pr)
Taxi 2 (Krawczyk) (sc, pr); The Dancer (Garson) (pr)
"Besson Meets Spielberg," interview with Jacques-Andre Bondy and Alan Kruger, in Premiere (Paris), November 1996.
"Cool Hand Luc," interview with Alan Kruger and Glenn Kenny, in Premiere (London), vol. 5, 1997.
"Astral Grandeur/Fantastic Voyage," interview with Andrew O. Thompson, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1997.
"Tall Storeys," interview with Nigel Floyd, in Time Out (London), 4 June 1997.
"Luc Besson: Writer/director," interview in Reel West (Bernaby, British Columbia), August-September 1997.
Interview with Robert W. Welkos, in Los Angeles Times, 11 November 1999.
Hayward, Susan, Luc Besson, New York, 1998.
Chevallier, J., " Le Denier Combat ," in Revue du Cinema (France). "L'Age du Capitaine," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1985.
Ferguson, K. "Tarzan Goes Underground," in Photoplay , September 1985.
Bodtker, H., "Splatter—'videovold' i naerbilber," in Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 3, 1985.
Chion, M., "Silka Kot Riba v Zvocnem Akvariju," in Ekran (Yugoslavia), no. 3/4, 1988.
Tangen, J. "'Det Store Bia': en dyp Film fra Besson?," in Z Filmtidsskrift (Oslo), no. 27, 1989.
Bassan, R., "Trois Neobaroques Francais," in Revue du Cinema (France), May 1989.
Strauss, F. "La Planete Besson," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 409, 1988.
Caron, A., "Pour quelques Besson de plus!," in Sequences (Montreal), September 1990.
Kelleher, E., "French Box Office Hit Nikita Bows Stateside via Goldwyn," in Film Journal (New York), March 1991.
Murray, S., "European Notes," in Cinema Papers (Victoria, Australia), August 1990.
Graye, J., and J. Noel, " Nikita ," in Grand Angle (Mariembourg, Belgium), April 1990.
Lubelski, T., "Besson," in Kino (Warsaw), August 1991.
Ostria, V., "Besson Manque d'Air," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1991.
Jousse, T., "L'Ecran Aquarium," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1991.
Lefebvre, P., " Atalantis ," in Grand Angle (Mariembourg, Belgium), September/October 1991.
James, C., "Film View: Word from Nikita : Hold the Subtitles," in New York Times , May 5, 1991.
Pezzotta, A., " Atlantis ," in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), May/June 1992.
Alexander, Max, "A Gaul in Hollywood," in Variety (New York), 10 October 1994.
Slabý, Petr, "Neobarokní intermezzo," in Film a Doba (Prague), Spring-Summer 1996.
Kenny, Glenn, "Braving the ' Element '," in Premiere (New York), May 1997.
Elley, Derek, "Pop Pic Auteur," in Variety (New York), 23–29 June 1997.
"Luc Besson," in Film Journal (New York), July 1997.
Williamson, K., "Imbessonism," in Box Office (Chicago), July 1997.
Chang, Chris, "Escape from New York," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1997.
Cosulich, O., "Quando il futuro diventa cult," in Revista del Cinematografo (Rome), October 1997.
Martani, M., "Nouvelles images," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), October 1997.
* * *
Most noted for their stunning visuals, Luc Besson's films often invite scrutiny of the blurred line between the artistic and the commercial. Making his directorial debut with Le Dernier Combat , Besson's beautifully executed black-and-white cinematography earned him a chance to make his first major feature, Subway , a film described by Michael Wilmington as "Steven Spielberg gone existentialist." Shot mostly at Beverly Center Cineplex, Subway creates an underground world of the Paris Metro, both eerie in its fluorescent darkness and charming in the interweaving of fast-paced editing and charismatic characters. A seemingly complex narrative of three separate strands is treated with a simplemindedness that makes it almost comic-book-like. It is at its best a skillful show of light and shadows, and at worst a flashy skeleton of a film that befits its inhabitants.
The Big Blue , Besson's third film, was a tremendous box office hit at home but a failure internationally. A breathtakingly filmed story about the lifetime friendship and rivalry between Jacques and Enzo, two free-divers, and their relationship with an American journalist (played by Rosanna Arquette), The Big Blue entangles too many elements at once to make sense. Jacques' mysterious bond with the ocean, as emphasized time and again by his ties with dolphins—it is no coincidence that Besson's production company in France is called Les Films du Dolphin—never goes beyond a pretentious justification for the showy underwater photography. The American journalist Joanna's fascination with Jacques, on the other hand, also never once sparks any romantic fulfillment. It is Jacques' peculiar friend, Enzo (played by Jean Reno, who later stars in The Professional ), who anchors the film with his stocky rotundness and almost laughable yet respectable stubbornness.
Produced by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, La Femme Nikita returns to cityscapes and paints a bizarre picture of a female hitperson, working for the French equivalent of the CIA. Ultra-violence adorned with a triangular romance and spy-thriller suspense, Nikita seems to be the most interesting of Besson's films; or, at least, its complexity stems neither from the semi-hallucinatory ambiance in Subway nor the pretentious mythicism in The Big Blue , but rather from an uncanny interest and concern that develop in the viewer about Nikita. The character, proclaims Stanley Kauffmann, is "so interesting a wanderer between stages of moral consciousness that violence becomes one of the film's essentials." A genuine interest in her psychology provides the emotional depth that was lacking in Besson's previous works.
In The Professional , Besson continues his psychological study of marginalized, on-the-edge individuals: this time, a hit man , Leon, played by Jean Reno. Leon is the "Cleaner," New York's top hitman. He is never emotional; or better yet, as a professional, he never allows himself to be emotional. Through some inopportune circumstances he meets the twelve-year-old Mathilda (played convincingly by Natalie Portman). In her attempt to be trained as a hitperson in order to avenge her parents' murder, the process of Mathilda's makeover is in fact a vehicle for exploring the relationship between this odd couple. Walking the thin line between the innocent affection of a man and a child bonding (as in Paper Moon ) and a portrayal of a potentially pedophilic liaison, Besson's incisive direction turns the film from a cliched story into an almost lyrical character study.
The last of Besson's 1990s features, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc , is a muddled reworking of the Joan of Arc story, with the title character lacking any sort of psychology and becoming little more than an adolescent action heroine. The Messenger was preceded by the visually dazzling but otherwise annoyingly uneven The Fifth Element. If this futuristic epic, most of which is set in the mid-23rd-century, seemed to be little more than a comic book come-to-life, that is understandable; Besson wrote the first draft of its script when he was sixteen years old. His scenario features two primary male characters, one a reluctant hero and the other an over-the-top villain, and a female who is an adolescent male fantasy figure: a near-nude, orange-haired nymphet. Unfortunately, the storyline in which they are involved is incoherent—but the film, produced on a $90-million budget, is worth seeing for its truly inventive production design.
One certainly would welcome the maturing of a director like Luc Besson, whose natural knack for cinematographic beauty has occasionally been enriched with some psychological depth. Going beyond the flashiness, Besson has shown a high potential for artistry, one that goes into the visuality of the imagistic world and actually strives for meanings. But questions still remain: what is it that we seek in cinema (a medium that is first and foremost visual) other than the visuals?
—Guo-Juin Hong, updated by Rob Edelman