La Femme Nikita (1990)
Much of Luc Besson’s early career, it has been said, was shaped by his experiences as a child. His parents’ divorce in particular. “Here are two families,” he once said to The New York Times, “and I am the only bad souvenir of something that doesn’t work. If I disappear, then everything is perfect. The rage to exist comes from here.” These days, Besson says his movies have acted as therapy since – “I have scars I can use when I need to and ignore when I don’t,” he smiles now – but the movie that first saw him make global waves is packed with rage and isolation. Besson’s then-wife Anne Parillaud is the convicted felon told to choose the death penalty or a new life as an assassin, and it wouldn’t be much of a movie if she chose the former. Parillaud is brilliant in a killer role and Besson shoots with a clinical, marble-clad, gleaming beauty. It also contains a ‘cleaner’ assassin character, who would go on to inspire…
People will say of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, featuring as it does the likes of Rihanna as an interplanetary burlesque dancing blue squid, that it’s Besson at his most outlandish. Then again, as Leon will testify, traditional plots aren’t something the man has ever been concerned with. It’s a movie about a milk-drinking, plant-tending, Gene Kelly-addicted hitman from Sicily (Besson regular Jean Reno) who adopts a 12-year-old orphan sporting a Louise Brooks bob (Natalie Portman, delivering possibly the most whack-you-in-the-face brilliant movie debut ever) and teaches her his trade because, well, she asks him to. The result is a plain wonderful mix of violence, tenderness and Gary Oldman dialling the mad right up to 11. “You’ve no idea how many people ask me for a sequel to Leon,” Besson laughs today. “If I was motivated by money I’d have done it ages ago, but I don’t feel it.”
The Big Blue (1988)
It’s no coincidence that the displaced heroes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets reside on a particularly beautiful one, surrounded by the sea. Besson has been in love with the ocean since he was a child, a fixation that reached its apex with The Big Blue. His parents were both scuba diving instructors and little Luc harboured a desire to be a marine biologist before a diving accident left him unable to take the plunge (though he’s okay to dive again now). The change in career plans forced him into the movies, but his second feature paid beautiful tribute to his first love. The Big Blue may actually not be about all that much – it’s about two freedivers, rivals both professionally and when it comes to a lady – but boy is it pretty. Critics at the time would use the movie as evidence of Besson’s key contribution to the “Cinema du look” (aka style over substance) movement, but it’s more an uplifting paean to the glories of nature. As Besson himself observes: “Cinema never saved anyone’s life, it is not a medicine that will save anyone’s life. It is only an aspirin.” And this is perfect pain relief from the day to day.
Besson continues to refute the claim, but it’s hard to not see him as a director far more concerned with women than with men. Yes, on the one hand this is the man who, as a writer, has cooked up the none-more-macho likes of The Transporter, Taxi and Taken franchises (earning his EuropaCorp company a huge chunk of change in the process). But those are the movies he writes, and gives to someone else to direct. The ones he keeps for himself? Those would be the ones with the interesting, deeper female leads. Take Lucy, for example. Inspired by, in Besson’s words, “a molecule that pregnant women create after six weeks – a super atomic bomb for a baby,” the movie posits the (untrue, but handy for a story device) theory that human beings use only ten percent of their brain. Scarlett Johansson is the everyday woman who is infected by a super-serum being transported by gangsters and achieves transcendental brain power. It’s pure Besson; high concept and empowering. “Humanity today is in a mess,” says Besson. “Lucy has the idea that when you have power, the best thing to do is share it.”
The Fifth Element (1990)
Easily Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ most obvious sibling is Besson’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Fifth Element. The French critics largely hated it, but mainly because they saw it as a big-budget, English-language move away from them and into the greedy arms of Hollywood (who gratefully welcomed Besson right in). The anti-Blade Runner, this epic extravaganza painted the future (it’s set in 2259) as not the classic rain-soaked noir, but a technicolour explosion of flying cars, mental hair (hello again, Gary Oldman) and skimpy costumes (Milla Jovovich’s bandage-bikini). Her heroine, Leeloo, is the fifth element of the title, and the only one able, apparently, to be able to thwart a big old evil that the likes of air, water, earth and fire have been unable to defeat. Bruce Willis is in it, too. In a vest. Again. In terms of its visuals and its ideas, this was a movie unlike any sci-fi that had gone before it. Until now, anyway…
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
The bottom line when it comes to Besson’s latest movie, the one he has dreamed to put on screen ever since he first started out, was that he was ready for ages; it was technology that wasn’t. “When I was ten years old, I’d go to the [newspaper] kiosk every Wednesday,” says Besson. “One time, I found this magazine called Pilote. Inside, I discovered Valerian and Laureline. That day, I fell in love with Laureline, and I wanted to be Valerian.” That comic strip, written by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, was first published in 1967. And now, exactly 50 years later, Valerian and Laureline arrive in the not-exactly-unattractive central pairing of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the mismatched heroes on an intergalactic quest to save the universe. The movie is, just like The Fifth Element was nearly three decades before, unlike anything you will have ever seen – Avatar meets Salvador Dalí, and packed with enough ideas to melt your head. In a good way. It’s also wonderfully uncynical, with a purity of heart that’s a welcome aspirin from the headaches of the modern world. “If that’s how it makes you feel,” smiles Besson, “then I have truly done my job.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday July 20.