To some director/writer/producer Luc Besson is the French equivalent of Steven Spielberg, a big-budget filmmaker with populist appeal. To others he’s a retina-frying, turbo charged fantasist whose films are empty calories for the eyes.
Movies like the high gloss crime thriller La Femme Nikita, the assassin mentor flick Léon: The Professional and outré sci fi opera The Fifth Element have come to define his outrageous style. Kinetic blasts of energy, his films make eyeballs dance even if they don’t always engage the brain.
His work divides critics. The Fifth Element, and its huge, Earth-destroying ball of molten lava, was simultaneously called “an exhilarating, visual feast” and “boring and idiotic.” One critic called Léon: The Professional, “a wonderful character study,” while another said, “The Professional is strictly amateur-hour.” Different strokes for different folks.
His latest, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is similarly polarizing. According to whom you listen to it’s either as “if someone projected an entire decade’s worth of sci-fi space epics on the same screen, at the same time” or “one of the best films of the year.” Based on a French comic book series and starring Dane DeHaan and Carla Delevingne, the story of special operatives Valerian and Laureline and their quest to save the universe is another wild, idiosyncratic ride from the director.
His movies may divide critics but there is no question his more-is-more style of filmmaking appeals to audiences. His Taken trilogy (he wrote and produced the Liam Neeson thrillers) has grossed near $1 billion worldwide and his Le Grand Bleu, a tale of love and friendship set against a backdrop of professional free diving, was so popular in France the International Herald Tribune called it a “film générationnel,” a defining moment in the culture.
More recently Lucy, a philosophical action movie starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman whose mind expands to ten times the usual capacity, grossed ten times its $40 million budget. It’s pure Besson. Imagine a mix of Limitless, La Femme Nikita, The Matrix and a Philosophy 101 textbook with half the pages torn out and you’ll get an idea of the film’s loopy feel.
Besson is a maestro at high-octane action but falls down somewhat in others genres. A rare comedy, The Family, is a basic fish out of water story with a gangland twist, starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a crime family in witness protection trying to fit in. Trouble is, they don’t blend. Besson is heavy handed with the paint-by-numbers story, the humour and the violence. It’s a movie without a genre, neither funny enough to be a comedy or interesting enough to satisfy as thriller.
Despite that movie hitting the box office with a thud, Besson seems to have the Midas Touch with audiences although he claims not to care much about money. He says people request sequels for two of his most popular turns behind the camera, The Fifth Element and Léon: The Professional. “If I was motivated by money I would have done it a long time ago,” he says. “But I don’t feel it.”
Instead, he’d like you to go see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets at least twice. “I’m sorry, you can’t watch the film once. It’s impossible,” he said at a recent press day. ”You have to go twice.”