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Author Topic: A nice Leone Reference in a NY Times article about Luc Besson Pt1  (Read 2115 times)
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« on: May 26, 2007, 05:50:00 AM »

le Cinema du Blockbuster

Susanna Howe for The New York Times

ON the sliding scale of Frenchness, “Angel-A” — a low-budget black-and-white romance in which a desperate couple travel the streets of Paris, alternately running from and chasing after a gangster as they debate the nature and meaning of existence — would seem at first glance to register pretty high. Unless you were a member of the French cinematic elite, in which case your animus toward the writer-director, Luc Besson, long the most Hollywood of French filmmakers, might make you suspect its authenticity. When it opened in Paris in December 2005, critics were predictably hostile: Under the headline “Besson Stupid and Talkative,” the reviewer for the newspaper Libération sneeringly wrote, “Besson thinks he can buy himself the title of auteur, but all he attains is a parvenu’s vulgarity.”

 
In the United States, Mr. Besson is primarily known as a superior director of stylish, mayhemic, even soulful films like “La Femme Nikita” and “Léon: The Professional.” But in France, across Europe and throughout Asia he is a bona fide celebrity: auteur and entrepreneur, star maker and mogul, and a first-class purveyor of blockbuster escapist fantasy. Over a 30-year career he has not only directed 10 features (Sony Pictures Classics will release “Angel-A” here on May 25) but has also written and produced dozens more, including a handful of the most commercially successful French movies ever. In the process he has almost single-handedly dragged French cinema, kicking and screaming, from the art house into the multiplex.

To the chagrin of French critics and cinephiles, the scale of this success has reoriented French filmmaking away from the literary-intellectual tradition for which it is famed. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie,” a sentimental crowd pleaser that straddled Hollywood and French romantic comedy conventions, would be unthinkable without Mr. Besson; so too the slick, explosive big-budget genre films like “The Crimson Rivers” and “Brotherhood of the Wolf” that have played around the world.

As a result Mr. Besson has routinely found himself under attack by critical essays with titles like “Besson Murdered My Cinema.” Mr. Besson, nothing if not obstinate, makes no apologies for his work. “In France we have this problem,” he said. “We cannot admit that movies are also an industry, that a movie is also fun.”

At 48 the broad-shouldered, husky Mr. Besson exhibits few of the qualities of the auteur, beginning with his unprepossessing appearance (rarely will you encounter him in anything more formal than a pair of black Levi’s and a dark-colored thermal T-shirt) and extending to an aversion to typical French-artiste habits like cigarette smoking, or coffee or wine consumption. Perhaps things would be different if he had gone to La Fémis, the French National Film School. But as Mr. Besson tells it, when he was 18, in 1977, he applied, and in a preliminary interview, an administrator asked him which directors he most admired. Mr. Besson named Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Milos Forman, before the interviewer cut him off, saying: “That’s enough. I don’t think you belong here.”

Throughout his life Mr. Besson has never quite belonged. He was born in Paris, to parents who led a nomadic life as Club Med scuba instructors in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. A natural swimmer, diver and student of sea life, he was also a solitary child. When he was 10, his parents moved back to France, divorced and married others. “Here there is two families, and I am the only bad souvenir of something that doesn’t work,” he said. “And if I disappear, then everything is perfect. The rage to exist comes from here. I have to do something! Otherwise I am going to die.”

He escaped by diving deep inside himself, writing long, fantastic adventure stories, which he didn’t show anyone. A few months before high school graduation, Mr. Besson’s stepfather arranged for him to assist the crew on a short film shooting in Paris. When he returned home the next day, Mr. Besson informed his mother he was leaving school to work in film production. He packed his things and never looked back.

Having neither attended film school nor logged much time at the cinémathèque, Mr. Besson’s repertory of movie references can have shocking gaps. Though “Angel-A” concerns a man who is about to take his life by jumping off a bridge, only to come under the wing of a guardian angel who guides him on a retrospective tour of his life, its statuesque star, Rie Rasmussen, said that when she tried to talk to Mr. Besson about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she was surprised to find he had never seen it.

Yet while Mr. Besson tends to hatch scenarios from his imagination, they are designed to entertain. In 1979, when he was a 20-year-old production assistant, he took a trip to Los Angeles. With a friend he visited Universal Studios, where he lucked into an invitation to visit the set of “The Nude Bomb,” a comedy based on the television sitcom “Get Smart.” Though Mr. Besson could see it wasn’t a great movie, it was still a revelation.

“Just to see how they are shooting,” he said, “and then to return to France, already I can see the difference. There was something wrong. This was very light, easy, fun. In Paris everything was about ego and pretension. Almost everybody is there for bad reasons.”

Mr. Besson’s fluid camera sense was evident from the opening sequence of his low-budget debut feature, “Le Dernier Combat,” made in 1982. He became a phenomenon, however, in 1988 with his third film, “The Big Blue,” an English-language love story drawing on his childhood, set in the world of the endurance sport of free diving (deep-sea diving without breathing apparatus). When the film had its premiere on opening night at the Cannes Film Festival, it was mercilessly drubbed, but no matter; it was a smash. Embraced by young people who kept returning to see it again, the movie sold 10 million tickets and quickly became what the French call a film générationnel, a defining moment in the culture.


« Last Edit: May 26, 2007, 05:59:52 AM by cigar joe » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: May 26, 2007, 05:51:42 AM »

Part 2

Mr. Besson’s next films were harder and more vicious, establishing him as a world-class action maestro. A return to French-language filmmaking, “La Femme Nikita,” released in 1990, spawned numerous imitators (including Quentin Tarantino, who appropriated the figure of the “cleaner” — a high-level crisis manager for killers — for “Pulp Fiction”). “Léon: The Professional” (1994), which was shot in New York in English, saw Natalie Portman’s debut as a smoldering nymphet who bonds with the Euro-hitman played by Jean Reno.

In subsequent films Mr. Besson realized his ambition to meld visionary, megabudget Hollywood-style spectacle to French sensibility. The tongue-in-cheek, brink-of-the-apocalypse “Fifth Element” starred English-speaking actors, including Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, but much of its impact derives from Mr. Besson’s engagement of the French comic book artists Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières to visualize the film’s rococo-futurist settings, and Jean Paul Gaultier to design the costumes. Similarly, “The Messenger: Joan of Arc,” though shot in English with an international cast, has a subject as deeply embedded in French national mythology as George Washington is in ours.

For nearly 100 years Hollywood has courted foreign directors who display an affinity for its idiom. Yet Mr. Besson has remained in Paris: acting locally and thinking globally, he makes popular entertainments, with Hollywood budgets and production values. Mr. Besson’s films are now produced by EuropaCorp, the studio he established in 2000 when Gaumont, which had financed his films as a director, declined to support his ambitions as a producer.

Since then EuropaCorp has produced more than 50 movies, 20 of which Mr. Besson has written or co-written, and two that he wrote, produced and directed. Since opening in Paris last Christmas his “Arthur and the Invisibles ” — a Harry Potteresque children’s adventure that is a hybrid of live action and innovative 3-D animation — has earned nearly $110 million. And “Taxi 4,” the latest in a series of action comedies that Mr. Besson has written and produced, has taken in over $50 million in France alone in since mid-February.

But if Mr. Besson’s Hollywood-style productions have made French cinema a global industry, American audiences still perceive something subtly foreign about them. His films tell European stories and feature European characters, and retain a distinctive European identity and flavor. The box office returns here also lag behind lesser but more familiar Hollywood product, unlike elsewhere in the world, where EuropaCorp releases compete with Hollywood’s on more level ground. (If there’s a historical precedent, it would be the Italian director Sergio Leone, whose 1960s westerns, shot in Spain, in English, with Clint Eastwood and other American stars, were at once recognizable and alien.)

Instead Mr. Besson has been a consistent “long tail” filmmaker in America, accumulating a significant following among people who discover his work on cable or DVD. Ms. Portman says that 13 years later “Léon: The Professional” is the film strangers most want to talk about when they first meet her. “It’s a lesson,” she said, “in how to separate the quality of a movie and how it stays with you from any kind of criticism or money.”

If the films that he writes and hands off to others (including the James Bond-style “Transporter” movies and the thriller “District B-13”) are primarily check-your-brain-at-the-door entertainments, then those he directs inevitably represent a more complicated and personal set of preoccupations and obsessions. “Angel-A,” which he calls “my story,” was made in 2005 during a lull in the drawn-out process of perfecting the computer-rendered world of “Arthur.” Mr. Besson shot the film quickly, on the cheap, frequently driving around with a small crew and spontaneously finding shooting locations. After so many blockbusters, it was a return to the way he made his earliest movies.

A character-driven film, focusing on the evolving relationship of a couple, “Angel-A” is the closest thing to a traditional French film that Mr. Besson has made. Mr. Besson, who refers to his print adversaries as “de-press,” has often spoken of retiring after directing 10 films. And beyond its sense of self-searching, “Angel-A” has a genuine valedictory quality. Mr. Besson admits that the film’s dialogue, by turns inarticulate, comic and poetic, is his attempt to dramatize his own inner dialogue and arrive at some measure of self-acceptance.

After all these years what Mr. Besson continues to enjoy most is writing, diving anew into his imagination to test the mettle of a sensitive, poorly socialized heroes who, faced with the unjust thwarting of their desire, are forced to exact savage retribution.

“I feel lucky, because this is what I wanted to do when I was 17,” he said. “But you know, I meet young guys and the thing in their eyes is to be like Luc Besson. It’s crazy. For so long I was so unhappy with myself, I couldn’t imagine someone who wants to have my life.”


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