Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Exaggeration & Besson

Luc Besson makes films that stand apart from the rest of the crowd; they are audaciously visual, exaggerated and never quite what you expect them to be. If you have never seen a Luc Besson film I highly recommend viewing one – they are unlike anything you’ve ever seen out of an American director. The story and the visual elements of his films stand out far beyond anything you would think possible in a traditional Hollywood tale and Besson is anything but traditional.

Besson’s career was born out of the French cinema du look movement which placed the visuals of the film above anything else including characters and story; the movement had no political ambitions and no clear motives, it merely wanted the stun the audience with gorgeous pictures running at 24 fps. When this movement was popular in the 1980’s and early 1990’s Besson was one of the primary directors of the movement and it both defined and refined how he interacted with the visual medium that is film.

Besson became a director of exaggeration; while he concentrated more on his story and characters than some of the other directors in the movement Besson greatly enjoys the exaggeration of both the visuals of his films and the places he can stretch the story itself.


His first international hit was the offbeat spy film Nikita about a strung out young woman and the life that is created for her because of her addiction. When she follows her boyfriend into a robbery all of her peers are killed and she brazenly kills a police officer; from there her own death is faked and she is brought into a secret agency where she is given the ultimatum that she can learn and be trained as an assassin or she can be killed as she is already dead on paper. Nikita is put through an insane series of events that is only equivalent to My Fair lady on crack as she is refined into a proper lady and a trained killer.

Nikita is bathed in the bright colors and absurd story arch’s that Besson seems so intent to concentrate on. Nikita herself is the first quirky and powerful woman that Besson seems so intent to concentrate on and the film bridges the divide between his time in the cinema du look movement and his own move to American cinema; Besson creates the prototype for the rest of his films that follow.

Four years after Nikita Besson burst into American film again with his next powerful female in Leon, known in the U.S. as The Professional. In Leon the female is still the driving force of the film, and the world was introduced to a twelve year old Natalie Portman as Matilda.


Leon follows professional hit man, yet mild-mannered citizen Leon, who lives in a seedy apartment building down the hall from Matilda and her family. When Matilda comes home one day to find her family has been slaughtered and the murderers still lurking she convinces Leon to take her into her apartment, pretending that she is his relative. Matilda convinces Leon to keep her hidden and as she learns what he does for a living is able to convince him to train her as his apprentice of sorts both to protect herself and because she wants to avenge the death of her little brother. This film also has one of the most delightful villains in recent history, Stansfield played by Gary Oldman.

While Leon doesn’t have the same crazy color scheme and intense visuals as his earlier films, Besson takes his exaggeration to the story instead as each character in the film is a bundle of contradictions that could never exist in reality: Matilda is a revenge seeking 12 year old girl in love with Leon, Leon is a quiet, simple minded hit man whose drink of choice is milk, and Stansfield is a strung-out corrupt cop who commands the respect of half the police force. This film was so controversial because of Matilda alone that it had to be edited down in the U.S. as the MPAA did not think audiences would respond well to her character.


The final example of Besson’s exaggeration and his last English language film, is the cult classic The Fifth Element. This film is perhaps the definition of an exaggerated film in both terms of visual style and story. In this film Besson tries his hand at science fiction and lands firmly on the side of style over science. Again, Besson uses a strong, unique female in LeeLoo played by the then little known outside of modeling Milla Jovovich. LeeLoo is the sudden surprise that lands right into the back of disgruntled Korbin Bernstein’s cab and catapults him into an ancient problem and forces him to fight between the girl, the government, and a mysterious alien force; LeeLoo herself is a mystic creature who was created as “the fifth element” or security for the planet but has never learned a thing about humanity until she lands in Korbin’s life, and proceeds to kick, pummel and scream her way out of every scenario until she is finally used for her original purpose – saving the planet.

Besson made several more films, each with his classic exaggeration but has since announced his retirement from film directing. Luckily, Besson’s films will always remain relevant as they speak to the individual plight of human beings and they will always remain a visual treat.

Recommended Viewing: Leon - the international version, not The Professional.

4 comments:

Adam said...

Is the international version of "Leon" easy to find? I know that I've seen "The Professional" around, but I'd want to watch "Leon," like you recommended.

Megan said...

You just have to know what you're looking for. I've never actually noticed which version is on DVD, or if they're both on one disc. I think Christopher has it so I'll check.

FilmNinja said...

There is a better version of the professional?????!!!!!!! I knew it had a different title, but I didn't know they cut stuff out. That is amazing.

Nice article. I didn't realize that I liked Luc Besson so much. Those are some of my favorite films. However . . . I'm not sure that I've seen the original Nikita. I think I only saw the remake with Bridget Fonda.

I really like exaggeration in film though. I think that's what helps to color characters or worlds, and it definitely let's others see your vision.

Senor Granto said...

Definetely check out the international version. I'm not sure what the exact reason for editing it was but I think it was edited because there was a Lolita-esque subtext between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman's characters in that version. Whereas in the American one, its more of a paternal relationship.

I'm not really a fan of Beeson's later work but his early stuff like this Deep Blue and Nikita are all excellent, its like he combines the character driven cinema of France with the action driven cinema of the US into one beautiful meld.