Films to Follow: "The Big Blue" (1988)

Poster art for the French release of the film.
Poster art for the French release of the film.

As a young filmmaker, little-known outside of France, Luc Besson blazed onto the European and international film scene in 1988 with the release of Le grand bleu, better known to American audiences as The Big Blue.

Written and directed by Besson, the film focuses on two childhood competitors that grow up to become world-class free-divers (a sport which entails diving hundreds of feet underwater with no scuba gear and only one deep breath). As these two men continue to push the limits of what is humanly possible, their competitive friendship quickly becomes a dangerous obsession. Loosely inspired by the real life Italian and French divers Enzo Maiorca and Jacqes Mayol,the film was a huge success upon its release in Europe, helping to launch the careers of Luc Besson and actor Jean Reno in particular. While Besson is perhaps now better known (especially in the U.S.) for his more recent and popular work, including Léon (a.k.a. The Professional) (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997), The Big Blue is a meticulously crafted and superb piece of Besson's earlier work, and should not be overlooked.

The film features a beautiful blend of gorgeous under-water cinematography, a captivating and fiercely emotional romance/drama, and a fantasy story about a man that belongs to another world. The film has several memorable diving sequences in which Jacques dances with the dolphins, torn between his love for Johana, an American insurance investigator (played by Rosanna Arquette), and the ocean that seems to elicit an almost mystical fascination in him. Surprisingly funny, the film is filled with moments of light charm, as well as a riveting chemistry between Jacqes and Johana. Enzo and Jacques friendship also beautifully explores the fine line between respect and envy, pride and foolhardiness. Reno plays one of the finest roles of his career, portraying the closest I've seen to an egotistical jerk with a sly charisma you can't help but love. Jean Marc-Barr's performance is equally impressive, but perhaps more beautiful, more subtle. You see glimpses of another world flicker across his eyes every time the camera rests on them.

The script is also finely polished and rarely misses the mark, making the wise choice of not taking itself too seriously. The film opens in black and white, shot simply yet boldly, almost hearkening back to a different era of film-making. As the two boys grow up, the colors and scenic vistas in their world expand accordingly into a dazzling array of sparkling azul blue water and lonely, barren Sicilian cliffs. Besson choreographs every scene in the movie to its full potential, from exquisite cinematography to some of the most touching performances I have seen. The music by Eric Serra, while a product of its time and now quite dated, seems fitting to the mood of the movie and rarely detracts. More often, it contains the same elements of beauty and yearning that this film exudes visually.

There are several versions of this film, including the 132 minute original French cut, the 118 minute U.S. edited version (featuring entirely different music by Bill Conti), and a more recent 168 minute extended version. I personally favor the extended version, which has the director's preferred ending (the U.S. release was different from the French original) and expands Jacques and Johanna's relationship.

You can find a copy of the extended version below:

"The Big Blue: Director's Cut" on Amazon.com

A moving film that manages to avoid drippy sentimentality, I walked away from my viewing with a sense of awe and wonderment that persisted long after the closing credits. It is now one of my favorite movies, and I give it an 8/10.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Jean Reno as Enzo.Jean Marc-Barr as Jacques.Jean Marc-Barr and Rosanna Arquette as Johana.Director/writer Luc Besson with real life free diver Jacques Mayol.
Jean Reno as Enzo.
Jean Reno as Enzo.
Jean Marc-Barr as Jacques.
Jean Marc-Barr as Jacques.
Jean Marc-Barr and Rosanna Arquette as Johana.
Jean Marc-Barr and Rosanna Arquette as Johana.
Director/writer Luc Besson with real life free diver Jacques Mayol.
Director/writer Luc Besson with real life free diver Jacques Mayol.

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