The Big Blue Review
Released to Blu-ray here in the UK on September 14th as part of the Luc Besson collection, Optimum's release of The Big Blue contains both the original shorter American release, and the subsequent (dubbed) French release The Big Blue : Version Longue. As with Leon it is the longer version that is the default choice on this disc, with the shorter cut presented as an extra feature. Therefore, it is the longer version I will focus on with this review.
When the opportunity for reviewing Luc Besson titles came up, I chose this film as one of my titles. My only familiarity with Besson's work before this was the aforementioned Leon, but as a keen diver myself - I was keen to see what such a visionary director could do with such subject matter.
The first thing that should perhaps be mentioned about this film is that it does not follow any form of conventional plotline or structure. Whereas one can easily sum up the story, the film itself is so much more than the sum of its parts. Besson is much more interested in meaning than story. His film is very much an extended metaphor for freedom, for following your own path and defying convention. At the same time, it is a love song to the ocean. A paen to a love that can never be fulfilled, with an ending that makes this abundantly clear, in a way that is satisfyingly downbeat.
The story, such as it is, follows a rivalry and a friendship through from the beginnings to the very end. Enzo (Jean Reno) and Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) are two children growing up on a Greek island. Obsessed with the water, both spend as much time in its comforting depths as they can. In a black and white prelude, we see their relationship develop before an affecting accident brings this scene to a close.
We are then transported many years later, to a time when both are earning their living from diving but not in the conventional way we may imagine. Not for them the constricting scuba gear. Their love for the ocean means they are free divers - the kind who descend to unimaginable depths with no equipment whatsoever. Enzo is an egotist - the current world free-diving champion who is obsessed with world records. Jacques is not interested in competition, however. He is more interested in helping science understand exactly why it is he has the skills to dive deep and long without air.
It is the egotist Enzo, however, who provides the catalyst for bringing Jacques out of his little, excuse the pun, bubble. Turning up poolside after not seeing each other for years, Enzo throws a plane ticket in front of Jacques. He is challenging him to compete in the world free-diving competition - literally, this is the throwing down of the gauntlet. He seems to thrive on a challenge - and he seems to realise that Jacques is the only person who can compete with him.
The gauntlet is picked up, and what follows is a competition between the two divers, reaching ever more serious depths. At the same time, however, Jacques is being pursued by an American journalist called Johanna (Rosanna Arquette). It soon becomes clear that there can only really be one love of Jacques life, and that is not Johanna. Will she be able to humanise Jacques, and pull him into the world of human interaction - or will the pull of the ocean ultimately be too much for human love?
One criticism that could never be levelled at The Big Blue is that it lacks beauty. From the first frame to the last, this is beautifully shot. It could be argued that the sea is actually the major character in the film, and it lives and breathes in a way that quite possibly hasn't been realised before. Whether it is the surface of the ocean, sparkling in the harsh midday Mediterranean sun in the opening scenes, or the dark depths under an ice flow, the sea is shot with an empathy that only a man with a deep love of the ocean can communicate. Besson is that man, obsessed with the ocean and diving himself, before an accident sent him on a different career path.
Unfortunately, the film's strength is also its greatest weakness. Yes, the sea is important to the story, and yes it is shot beautifully. But never do you feel as involved with the characters as you truly need to in order to get the most out of the film. Part of the reason for this lack of involvement, I think, is in the performances. Jean Reno as Enzo brings a comedic edge to the role which just didn't sit comfortably with this reviewer. At times, he almost seems to be channelling Jacques Tati in his mannerisms and performance. Take, for example, the scene where the doctor tries to tell him he cannot dive. Enzo grabs the doctor by the throat in a manner which should be threatening, but instead is faintly ridiculous. In Reno's hands, Enzo never seems to be truly set free, almost as if the actor is trying to under emphasise his more unpleasant characteristics. This may well have been a deliberate decision between director and actor but to me it dilutes the character too much - and fails to make him sympathetic. It is almost like he is a cipher, created merely to be a crucial motive for Jacques to be entered into the competition. You never get a true sense of his relationship with Jacques.
Jacques is a very different character altogether. Jacques is meant to be the great innocent. He is supposed to be a character who is at one with nature, and who has a great naïveté about him. Someone who finds it difficult to interact with other humans - an almost child-like character. The irony, of course, is that Reno went on to play a character like this with great conviction in Leon so just maybe he might have been a better choice for the role here. Because in the hands of Jean-Marc Barr the character just seems to be totally unsympathetic. Supposedly sad, longing looks - to me look almost stupid. He seems to wonder around with no connection to the world or events. It is a rather bizarre performance, because you desperately want to sympathise with him. On paper, the character is very promising. But on screen, to me at least, Barr never gets anywhere close to the core of what the character is supposed to be. Whether it be his mannerisms, or his expression, I ended up really disliking him. I am sure this is emphatically not what Besson intended.
Of course, the root of the problem with this film, and it is tied in with the performances mentioned above, is that Besson simply cannot see beyond the ocean. That the film is stylistically brilliant is without question. The diving sequences are fantastically real, and you really do get the sense that the actors are really carrying out the dives. The director's use of colour, light, and shade is fantastic - and it is impossible to deny that The Big Blue is a superbly shot film. But at the end of the day, the main reason for watching this film is the beauty of the ocean, and you can get that on Blu ray on numerous documentaries. As a film, sad to say, The Big Blue is sadly lacking. The downbeat ending, which I wont spoil here, should be an emotional sucker punch. But unfortunately it never comes across this way and that is a major fault of the film. The film is technically magnificent, but emotionally lacking.