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Independent Research Project UA1A-PT-15-3


Date: JANUARY 2014

Personal Tutor: CLAIR SWARTZ


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Revisiting en bleu I have chosen to explore the film Le Grand Bleu or ‘ The Big Blue’, by the director Luc Besson, because I wanted to study the aesthetic devices which make this film so appealing to me and its fans. In my research I have chosen a number of texts by Susan Hayward and Phil Powrie, who have written at length on many of Besson’s films. I will be referencing terms from a lecture by Suze Adams. Taking comments from newspaper articles, online texts and reviews, I also refer to the studies by Jacques Aumont and Wendy Everett on the aesthetics of cinema. I will also propose my own analysis of the film.

I started my research by considering the reasons why I chose this film. I first saw Le Grand Bleu in France on its release to cinema, in 1988. I was about 12 years old. I saw the original cut, ‘Version Longue’ at 2h 48. It was French dubbed since the film was originally in English. The original version of the film was edited in various ways to comply with different criteria (duration, censorship laws, target audience …), with significant alterations affecting the very meaning of the film. I have watched four versions: the original French version at the cinema, the recorded video from the Channel Canal+ through TV, the short version sold in England as a video, and the version sold in China as a DVD. The American version was a screen flop on release and so did not make it to film sales. This version was brushed under the carpet though I will be making comments from movie clips on You Tube.

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The latest screening of the film in Bristol was on 16 October 2013 at the Zion Cinema as part of a film and food night. The evening included French food and a French DJ set. I find it interesting that the film was chosen to represent France, since the film was not for the most part filmed in France, though the presence a French director and its French style was enough to fit the theme of this event. As the newspaper puts it: Even if the film was and is shown as part of French themed events, the film has nothing to do with France as a location, its culture or presence. (The Independent, 2006). The film was also screened at the Hathersage outdoor pool in Derbyshire on 28 September 2013. It was a ‘collective, submersive cinema experience evening’ where the audience viewed the film whilst in the water of an outdoor heated pool, where the sound was also projected from underwater speakers. This screening took place to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary and was the 2h41 version. I recall when watching the film at the cinema, back in 1988, that the underwater scenes lasted for so long that I felt that I was going to drown, and found myself holding my breath instinctively. So I can understand why this film was chosen to be viewed from a pool: the spectators were actually in the water and their cerebral experience of the film was enhanced in the same way 3D films aim to do. The reviewer of the evening, who was not named, described the film as ‘strange and hypnotic’. (Sensoria 2013)

L’histoire (the Story) The story is that of the relationships between Jacques Mayol, played by Jean Marc Barr, Enzo Molinari, played by Jean Reno, and Johanna, played by Rosanna Arquette. The two men grew up as childhood friends and rivals.

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Les Caractères (the characters) From the beginning of the film, the audience is shown young Jacques’s love for the sea, as the first scenes show Jacques’s first encounter with dolphins whilst swimming and feeding fish by hand. The childhood encounter with Enzo shows Jacques’s deference to Enzo’s popularity with the other children in the village, with Enzo behaving like a bully towards Jacques. As the film moves to modern day, the scene switches from black and white to colour to illustrate this jump in time, old to new. In the following sequences the audience is introduced to Enzo as a professional diver, partnered with his brother. He is portrayed as the embodiment of the ‘Italian stallion’ stereotype, prepared to take on any challenge. Enzo is often filmed close up and the camera is below him to make the audience look up at him. It is as if his greatness was looking down at you from his ‘winning podium’. In comparison, Jacques is filmed from above as if we were looking down at him, making his status appear lower. Though Enzo is depicted as great, his achievements are not complete until he gets to beat Jacques at his own game for his own ultimate recognition of self worth. The hostile relationship between Enzo and Jacques seems more significant that the relationship Enzo has with his own brother. It was sibling rivalry and more. Interestingly in this modern day the spectators are introduced to Johanna and her chance meeting with Jacques as part of Jacques’s modern day update of his life as a ‘grown up’. In the meeting of Jacques and Johanna, the audience is immersed into the mystic culture of Peru, expressed through Eric Serra’s sound of pan pipes in a soft breeze,

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and later using lingering flows of synthesised saxophone thus giving these scenes a romantic feel. Jacques’s life had led him to become a wonder of science with the ability to hold his breath for long durations of time, making his body physics similar to that of a dolphin. Here the audience is to feel that Jacques is perhaps part creature of the sea, and the music reflects this magical ability with the sound of the saxophone. After having met Johanna whilst in the dream state in which he often finds himself, he confuses her with the beauty of the sea, thus forming a bond ‘at first sight’. The encounter resembles the type of passing in through a ‘non-place’ (Marc Augé/ Adams, S. 2013), like a station, where the destinations of each are in opposite directions, and by chance, Jacques and Johanna make a connection in the transit. (Adams, S. 2013) In the introduction to Johanna’s character, the spectator is thrown into her life’s noisy and busy New York surroundings, which contrast sharply with Jacques’s world. In the messy apartment, shared with equally dysfunctional members of the New York workforce, Johanna is played by Rosanna Arquette as a clumsy and ill-prepared young woman. Sally, Johanna’s flat mate, appears after a bout of shouting, eating from a large pot of ice cream, with no sense of refinement. The consumption of ice cream by women often represents the drowning of sorrow in the form of turning to junk food as the only means of comfort. Johanna shares her feelings for Jacques mostly through feminine body language though Sally is portrayed as having repressed feelings and therefore little interest in Johanna’s romantic story, again meaning that New York life is so constricting that it allows little room for imagination or aspiration. Johanna’s apartment lacks any form of home comforts, perhaps conveying the idea that the high crime rate does not allow people to have items that they can care about,

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since these are likely to be stolen: Sally describes how her grandmother’s ring was stolen. Johanna’s life is lifeless, and shown to be detached from nature and therefore at odds with Jacques’s. These differences show the pair as being ‘an odd couple’, illustrating the principle that ‘opposites attract each other’, and that relationships thrive well when differences of character can be an important factor in keeping relationships more interesting, alive and longer lasting. The meeting between all three of the main characters gives the audience the expectation that, as a love interest Johanna would be placed between the two men as the cause of friction, as is commonly portrayed in many Hollywood productions, but in this film the plot does not develop in this way. Despite Enzo’s efforts to impress Johanna with his stature and his success, it is made clear that she only has eyes for Jacques. The audience is introduced to Jacques’ new living surroundings, a place he shares with his Uncle Luis (the character provides the occasional grunt amongst his oncamera mad-cap shenanigans, adding comedy value at alternate parts of the film (Sensoria. 2013)). The audience is invited to explore Jacques’s home, and given a sense of location through the decorative items which play a part of Jacques’s daily memory recollection, shown in the ornaments which adorn the shelving of old furniture. As he brings his new relationship with Johanna to his assortment of life memories, the new merges with the old, adding to his precious assemblage (Adams, S. 2013).

La psychologie du film (the psychology in the film) Dumer in his critique of the film says 6 Janika N Bea Graphics 3

Le scénario du Grand Bleu n’est guère enthousiasmant et souffre d’un manque évident de psychologie. ‘The film is not exciting and suffers from a lack of psychology’ (my translation). The absence of parental presence needs to be addressed as the psychological factor behind the lack of Jacques’s commitment to Johanna and a conventional life in society (working with other people and creating a family), and his preference for a life in relationship with the sea. To Jacques, the ocean represents security. The sea, in French; ‘la mer’, is a feminine word and a homophone of the word ‘mère’ which translates as ‘mother’. Since Jacques’s mother abandoned him at an early age to return to America, Jacques sought comfort in the sea, water and floating being seen as relaxing, because of its association with the return to the safety of the womb. Jacques finds in the sea a refuge from the trauma of the loss of his mother. Furthermore, Jacques lost his father through drowning. The absence of parents, notably the mother, can be observed in many of Besson’s films, though this scenario can also be found in many other films such as Disney’s Bambi and Fox and Hound. The loss of the security of parents and family adds a life changing tragedy, creating a dysfunction and a void within a character. This void is something the character then attempts to fill, as the storyline unfolds, but in Jacques’s case, this void could not be filled. Jacques learns of his paternity only at the very moment that he has decided to kill himself. So the triangle’s base remains broken just the same. (Hayward, S. 1998 p.153) Jacques learns that Johanna is pregnant as he is about to give up his human life at the end of the film in an apparent scene of suicide, on his way to plunge into the sea for the last time. Jacques’s comprehension of family, the success of paternity or the idea

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of future in a human world are not for him. He has not experienced parental love or dedication, and feels that these can only bring him pain. This is especially so as Johanna is American, and through her eyes, he makes the connection with the pain his American mother inflicted on him. (I said ‘Jacques’s apparent suicide’ as I believe his disappearance at the end of the film meant for him a return to life, symbolised by his being led away by the dolphin/his mermaid: he had not intended to die).

Le style cinématographique (Filming style) Le Grand Bleu is Besson’s third released film after Le Dernier Combat and Subway and before Nikita and Léon. (Hayward, S. 1998). The film opened the Cannes Festival in 1988 and was slated by critics. Besson, born in Paris in 1959, scripted, produced and directed the film alongside Eric Serra, who composed the music, which is an integral part of the scenes. (ABC Clio. 2005) The film opens in black and white, the camera capturing the water, close up, shot from above and in a fast paced, forward motion, and the audience cannot tell, at first what it is looking at. The music is alluring and instantly makes as big an entrance as the picturesque images. It is only when the camera angle draws up that the audience realizes that it is looking at a vast seascape, and it was at this point that I noticed the shape of the screen, or rather its thick top strip and bottom strip, which gave the impression of peripheral vision. Luc Besson used the same style of opening in Nikita, Léon and Le Cinquième Elément: I believe this was his signature style to introduce the audience to the stage where the performance was going to be based. He, however, gave up this signature style in the films following these three. 8 Janika N Bea Graphics 3

Besson’s films are shot in a 70mm cinemascope (an alternative widescreen format), unlike the traditional 35mm, as he believes it is the best format to work in. (Hayward, S. 1998.) The spectators are made to view the horizontal darkness that frames the moving images, “the limits of the image”, in the same way an artist chooses carefully the frame or borders within which their art will be displayed. (Aumont, 1994.) Besson’s choice to use this framing stems for his perfectionist attention to detail which is like that of an artist. (Hayward, S. 1998. p 15) This exposure to image in a strip across the centre of the screen almost compels the viewer to look left, right as well as centre, when shown on big screen cinema, in the same way as if you were standing on a cliff edge to admire the view. Susan Hayward says: The spectator has a sense of 180 degree vision (Hayward, S. 1998. p 16) This film makes you admire the view as if you were there. Suze Adams, the artist, describes this relationship between humans and their environment really well when she says; The scene of sight over the scenes of human dominance and the interaction and relationship with the human world, with nature rather than human dominance over it. (2013)

Jacques’s interaction with nature is shown through his relationship with the sea and the dolphins it is home to. This union plays a key part in the film as the character struggles to decide whether he is part of the human world or the natural world of the sea.

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Les scènes (the scenes) Aside from the immensity of the scenery and the frame space, there are two other cinematic characteristics which are particular to Besson’s style. Besson’s scenes are shot in many fast sequences, quick insights into relevant moments, like clips or the running of a comic strip. Léon is made up of 1,540 shots and lasts 105 minutes. The national average for a French film is 400 shots for the whole film. (Hayward, S. 1998. p 16) These fast clips give ‘short and sweet’ scenes which are meant to say it all in a small space of time, and keeps the attention of the viewer. This use of fast pace was perhaps an attempt to compete with the traditional American fast pace action films (Hayward, S. 1998.) Besson’s references to America in Le Grand Bleu, however, are negative as both Jacques’s mother (the cause of his pain) and Johanna are shown to be ‘detached from natural instinct’ Americans.

L’ouverture (the overture) Besson’s second cinematic characteristic is his practice of working closely with the same crew and often the same cast, which is identified as typical of the 1930s’ tradition of film production. (Hayward, S. 1998.) The collaboration between Luc Besson and Eric Serra, which started in 1979, is a successful pairing of talents when it comes to the marriage of music to film, or even film to music. In the case of Besson’s films, sound and music often replace speech, when you hear breathing, intense lingering echoes of whale songs or the clangs reminiscent of the underwater chains of a sunken shipwreck, the street hip hop grunge that is the noise of the city, the comic tweetering like the sound children make

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banging spoons on tin cups, and trickling of water, the piano for the moments of fun and frolics, drums and synthesised echos for underwater scenes, the fast strumming of guitar and bass for the sex scenes, the synthesised saxophone for fantastic moments, generally making the music completely merge with the action and story at every changing scene. Today the record sales, the awards and the importance given to the music by Besson and the audiences makes Serra as much of an auteur of Besson’s films as Besson himself. (Hayward, S et al. 2006. p 45) The soundtracks to the Besson/Serra joint creation have sold more than 1000,000 copies of Subway, Nikita, Atlantis and Léon ; more than 200,000 copies of Le Cinquième Elément, in France and more than one million copies of Le Grand Bleu (which sold four million globally). (Hayward, S et al. 2006. p 43) Music to screen time for Le Grand Bleu is 70% (Hayward, S et al. 2006.) In the American version the music score was replaced by Bill Conti’s, which is perhaps, as described in comments by reviewers on, the main reason why the film was a flop in the US, while it enjoyed great success in Europe. Later the original version was shown in the US and its success led to Besson working in America. Besson broke into America with this film. The music by Bill Conti was no match to Eric Serra’s ability to merge with the feeling of the scenes, whereas Conti’s music added an uplifting element which did not follow the mood of the story.

La fin (the end) In the American version of the ending, the spectator sees Jacques return from the depth back up to the surface alongside the dolphin/mermaid. As in most Hollywood films, the hero comes up victorious, having preserved the vigour of his masculinity. In

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Luc Besson’s films the ‘heroes’ disappear into death, which is a feminine style of exit, as John Berger says, ‘Men act, women appear’. Women in death are also seen to disappear, quietly, when men are normally seen to die ‘In a Blaze of Glory’ (song by Jon Bon Jovi). It is perhaps because of the perceived lack of masculinity in the French ending that the American version chose an alternative ending showing Jacques triumphantly swimming off into the sunset, very much like in a classic Western movie.

Conclusion The film seems to invite the spectator to be, or aspire to be, in Johanna’s shoes. From the perspective of a non-American, her life is a glamorous struggle of work and external social life with the pressures of needing to be desired, loved and successful, as she is constantly trying to achieve recognition. The spectators are shown the masculine dream through Enzo, a man at the top of his physical game, admired by women and unafraid to push his limits. Enzo is shown to ‘die by the sword’ having failed to win against Jacques in a diving competition to reach his ultimate idea of success. The morale of Enzo’s story is that great is good enough, to aspire to win against the best or against nature is doomed to fail, and therefore not worth the risk. Though it may be understood as a repressive message that keeps people from pushing beyond their limits, it is here a word of wisdom, a warning against arrogance and the inability to control one’s desire for power. The morale of Jacques’s story is not made explicit and left to the interpretation of each spectator. On one hand, Jacques’s death at the bottom of the sea feels like an immersion in something more real than life on earth. On the other hand, Jacques, by

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turning away from conventional life in society, can be seen as having shied away from a human destiny, in which a life just as deep and real could have been achieved.

The three characters seen to suffer, each in a different way, and seek happiness, and the film shows that the ‘grass is not greener on the other side but indeed blue’.

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Bibliography ABC Clio. (2005) France and the Americas: Culture, Politics and History. [online] Available at [Accessed 08/09/2013]

Adams, S. (2013) Space and Place. Lecture notes from guest talk at Bower Ashton House for the University of the West of England. (Reference to her work, Marc AugĂŠ and the work of Do Ho Suh mentioned at her talk)

Aumont, J and Bregola, A [et al]. (1994). Aestetics of film. Paris. Editions Nathan (+Marie, M and Vernet, M) translated by Richard Neupert

Cinema screening. Sensoria the UK’s festival for music, film and digital [online] available at l [accessed 11.11.2013]

Credoreference. (2013) Arquette Rosanna (Rosanna Lauren Arquette . [online] available at ; ta=marquisam&uh=arquette_rosanna_rosanna_lauren_arquette [Accessed 14/11/2013]

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Credoreference. (2013). Besson, Luc In Marquis Who's Who in America. Available at; [Accessed 13/10/2013].

Dumez, V. (no date) Le Grand Bleu - la critique Le roi dauphin Available at; [Accessed 14/11/2013]

Everett, W.(1996). European Identity in Cinema. UK.Intellect Books.

Hayward, S. (1998) Luc Besson; French Film Directors. Manchester: Manchester University press.

Hayward, S and Powrie, P. (2006) The films of Luc Besson; Master of Spectacle. Manchester: Manchester University press.

Maule R. (2008). Beyond Auteurism. USA.Intellect Books

The Gardian, newspaper,(21 July 2006) available at UWE library. UK

The Times, newspaper,(22-28 July 2006) available at UWE library UK

The Independent, newspaper, (28th July 2006) available at UWE library UK

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Windcat. The Big Blue USA version ending. (2009).[online video] available at [Accessed 10/09/2013]

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Luc Besson's Big Blue (analysis)  
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