“He reminds me a bit of George Lucas,” Robert De Niro said in 2013 on the opening of The Family, a Mafia black comedy co-starring De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, and co-written, directed and produced by Luc Besson. The comparison was not an idle one. Like Lucas, Besson started out with a low-budget science fiction movie, and ended up at the head of a blockbuster moviemaking empire.
In 2014 alone, Besson’s name cropped up as co-writer and producer of 3 Days to Kill, starring Kevin Costner as a terminally ill CIA agent trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter in Paris. He was a producer on Brick Mansions (starring the late Paul Walker), a remake of a French action movie (Banlieue 13) he had written and produced in 2004. And he wrote, produced and directed Lucy, a sci-fi summer action caper starring Scarlett Johansson as a young woman with superpowers, which cannily capitalised on aspects of Johansson’s recurring role as Black Widow in the Marvel Universe, whom the studio had been sluggish in promoting from superhero sidekick into the heroine of her own feature. [ETA: Marvel finally – belatedly – announced a Black Widow movie in 2018.]
Ageing hit men, blue-collar action and warrior chicks – these are Besson’s recurring motifs. And they’re not the only things that set him apart from the rest of a French film industry that prides itself on maintaining a cultural identity distinct from the Hollywood model. Besson embraces that model, was a pioneer in the art of product placement, and often films in English, with international stars. “I never went to the Cinémathèque,” he once said. “I didn’t know much about the masters of world cinema.”
Nor does he come from a film-making background. He was born in 1959 in Paris, but his parents were scuba diving instructors for Club Med so he grew up in Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. He wanted to be a marine biologist and work with dolphins until a diving accident at the age of 17 curtailed his aquatic activities. “I loved writing, I loved images, I was taking a lot of pictures. So I thought maybe movies would be good,” he once said.
He made his feature debut in 1983 with The Last Battle, an almost wordless fantasy starring Pierre Jolivet and Jean Reno. Shot in black in white, it’s about two men fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Reception from French cinephiles was muted; Cahiers du Cinéma‘s grudging verdict was that, shorn of three-quarters of its length, it would have made “an acceptable short film”.
But it attracted attention overseas, and the 23-year-old was starting as he meant to go on – as a producing-writing-directing triple threat. According to fanzine editor Lucas Balbo, Besson was “was clearly angry about the way films were produced and distributed in France.”
For his second feature, Subway, Besson said he wanted to recreate the Paris Métro as a space station. And indeed, there was an SF vibe to the virtually plotless shenanigans of Christopher Lambert as an anti-hero of the underground, home to a bunch of punk-chic outsiders, into which poor little rich girl Isabelle Adjani descends, wearing fabulous earrings.
It was Subway and its two successors – The Big Blue (an epic diving bromance, booed at Cannes but a huge cult success thereafter) and Nikita (starring the film-maker’s then-partner, Anne Parillaud, as a sociopathic junkie trained to be an assassin in a little black dress) – that got Besson lumped in with the 1980s “Cinéma du Look” alongside Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva) and Léos Carax (Bad Blood).
But his slick, stylised early films, with their outsider protagonists, established Besson as a favourite with French youth and hip young anglophones who considered subtitles a come-on rather than a turn-off. And the double whammy of the English language productions Léon (aka The Professional, starring Reno as a world-weary hitman who protects young Natalie Portman from evil villain Gary Oldman) and The Fifth Element (a SF spectacular starring Bruce Willis as a world-weary cabbie who protects young Milla Jovovich from evil villain Gary Oldman) sealed his international popularity.
He stumbled with Joan of Arc, falling out with the film’s original director, Kathryn Bigelow, over his wish to cast his then-wife, Jovovich, in the leading role. Besson pulled the plug on the project, only to revive it with himself as director. Bigelow sued; the matter was settled out of court. Poor Milla, so cute as kooky Leeloo in The Fifth Element, bore the brunt of the bad reviews. “If you’re going to do Joan of Arc,” wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety, “it helps to have an actress to play the leading role.”
But Besson was busy building an empire. In 1999, he set up Europacorp with Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, his friend and producing partner since 1984. If you’ve ever watched Liam Neeson applying his “very particular set of skills” in one of the Taken action-thrillers, or Jason Statham in the Transporter franchise, you will have seen a movie from Europacorp, which throughout the noughties alternated distribution or co-production of independents such as The Singer or I Love You Phillip Morris with action vehicles for the likes of Jet Li, Tony Jaa or John Travolta.
Taken, in particular, seemed to come out of nowhere, and the stock Besson character of the ageing operative fit Neeson like a glove, giving him a new lease of life as a hard-boiled action hero. Besson-produced action movies are close enough to the Hollywood model to attract audiences, but they’re just different enough – in terms of casting, story, levels of violence and realistic martial arts – to make an impression in a genre which, in Hollywood, is increasingly degenerating into PG-rated fantasy.
Europacorp’s biggest success is the Taxi franchise, stunt-packed francophone action-comedies set in Marseille with a working-class hero, all written by Besson. (A 2004 American remake, starring Queen Latifah, was critically panned but still turned a profit.) These and the Banlieue 13 films, showcasing parkour genius David Belle, helped make Besson’s productions popular with young immigrant communities largely ignored by mainstream French cinema.
A few eyebrows were raised in 2003, when he sued the little cinema magazine Brazil for defamation. In its fourth issue, the magazine had run an article by called Besson m’a tué … mon cinéma (Besson Killed My Cinema) in which the writer, Hervé Declasse, questioned Besson’s motivation for making films, and his adoption of the American model. “Besson’s cinema functions as a pure product of marketing.” Besson dropped the case, but not before other critics had voiced support for the magazine.
His street cred got another battering in 2009, when he publicly came out in support of France’s controversial HADOPI laws and called for stronger measures against film piracy. The resulting rumpus ended with Besson having to close his Facebook account. The film-maker who had once railed against France’s traditional production and distribution methods was now himself clinging to old business models, unable to acknowledge that the very nature of distributing and viewing films had irrevocably changed. Besson was clearly no longer on the side of society’s outsiders.
The magic touch the film-maker had shown in previous decades seemed to have deserted him, too. He moved into children’s animation (mixed with some live-action) with Arthur and the Invisibles and its sequels, adapted from his own books, but the films were hampered by ugly CGI and charmless characters, and – despite stunt voice-casting from the likes of Madonna, David Bowie, Robert De Niro – failed to drum up much enthusiasm outside France. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a sort of distaff Indiana Jones adapted from a classic French comic book series by Tardi, garnered better reviews, but failed to do blockbuster business.
Meanwhile, relations between Besson and his colleague and friend of 30 years had soured. Le Pogam left Europacorp in 2011, and, in an interview with Le Monde, blamed a number of factors, including the appointment of Christophe Lambert (no relation to the actor), a PR expert with close ties to Sarkozy, to the director generalship. According to Le Pogam, the talk at Europacorp was “less and less about films, and more and more about marketing strategies.”
In 2012, Besson finally realised his cherished dream of setting up the Cité du Cinéma, a Hollywood-sur-Seine film-making complex in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, intended to rival Rome’s Cinécittà or London’s Pinewood. But the project hit a speed-bump the following year when it came under investigation for financial irregularities.
The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi, seemed to be an attempt to direct a serious film for grown-ups, but was dramatically inert and fell flat. No wonder Besson retreated into his comfort zone of world-weary hit men and sexy action heroines.
But the filmmaker showed no sign of flagging, and the Europacorp machine continued to roll forward, turning out TV series and sure-fire action hits. Taken 3 came out in 2015 and the Transporter franchise notched up a fourth film (without Statham) and a TV series. It’s clear we haven’t yet heard the last of Besson and his “very particular set of skills”.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in June 2014, to tie in with the U.K. release of 3 Days to Kill. It has since been edited.
Here’s the trailer for Anna (2019), which looks like a mash-up of Nikita and Lucy, with a touch of Red Sparrow. The film’s release was delayed after Besson was accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women.