Main characters and society
The principal characters in "Subway", "The Big Blue", "Nikita" and "Leon " all have at least one thing in common - they are all loners or outcasts from society. They do not fit easily into the conformist society that is the experience of the majority of citizens, but then the societies depicted in the films may also be considered extreme and outside the experience of most.
The worlds explored in these films (with the possible exception of "Big Blue") are dark and uncertain places where conventional views of what is right and wrong are challenged, and indeed where only the principal characters (in spite of appearances) show any real "integrity". It is in the conflict between these characters and the societies in which they live that we witness interesting and challenging observations on life, morality, and personal development. These worlds are extreme, as are the actions and reactions of the characters, but then that is the basis of drama, and extremity may lead to greater clarity.
We shall look, then, into the nature of these principal characters, their development, and their relationships with other characters. We shall also look at the nature of the societies in which these characters interact.
Grey reality beneath the surface
In each of the films it is worth noting that we are led below the surface of society. This is true quite literally and also metaphorically.
In "Subway" we are taken into the underground system in Paris where Fred encounters a group of misfits who clearly have no desire to lead a conventional life, but whose "integrity" is beyond question. Like Fred, they are true to themselves and do what they feel they have to do to survive. They do not doubt or question themselves. They lead their lives as they see fit, even if this means breaking society's laws. While we do not approve of their actions or admire them, we may have some respect for their refusal to lie down and conform to society's expectations of them.
It is in this context that Helena falls for Fred. She and her husband's henchmen pursue Fred into the underground system in an attempt to regain some papers he has stolen from her husband's safe. She is tired of her gangster husband's scams and shady dealings and she appreciates Fred's openness and sincerity. He is what he appears to be and Helena finds this refreshing. Her husband and his cronies are shallow and superficial, but worst of all are lacking in personality or character. They have conformed to one side of society, playing their parts in accordance with what is expected of them, doing and saying whatever they have to do to make a "killing". Their purpose is simply to make money and whatever they achieve is achieved by deceitful or unscrupulous methods, thus diminishing its value.
The police are equally dull and disappointing. At best they are hollow and disillusioned, having faced the endless onslaught of the criminal element all their working lives, going through the same motions every day, knowing that they make little real difference to society and its problems. At worst they are young, mindless, and over-confident, believing without question or doubt that they do a good and worthwhile job, playing the part of the protectors of society.
By comparison, Fred is exciting and attractive. He is spontaneous and daring, and is not afraid to act on impulse, following his instincts.
Although he shows himself to be quite amoral, he is at the same time "honest" in that he does nothing to deceive, shows a high degree of sensitivity and understanding, and is perfectly aware of the consequences of his actions, criminal or otherwise.
His declared ambition is to form a rock group and manage it, and he uses the money obtained from an armed robbery to that end. The money is a means to this end, rather than an end in itself - he is quite sincere in his desire to form a group and believes in the talent of those he has gathered together to form the group who want to express themselves musically and with integrity.
Fred shows little respect for the law or for the property of others. He steals Helena 's car at the start of the film, having blown up her husband's safe and stolen some papers. Again this appears to be a quite spontaneous act - he explains later that he simply doesn't like safes and that's it! He tries to sell the papers back and alters the price on an emotional whim, in return for a photo of Helena when she was young.
Clearly this is no master criminal. He acts on impulse and tries to turn events to his advantage, but basically we are dealing with a young man who is an independent, free spirit. He does not recognise the constraints of the law, not because he has rejected them, but because he is simply being himself and does not appear to consider the consequences (legally speaking) of his actions. He is what he is and he accepts it. He is "natural". That this conflicts with society's laws and expectations is the basis of the film.
He appears to believe in chance (or fate?) and that one should give in to one's feelings. He meets and falls in love with Helena very quickly but is certain of his feelings for her. He makes no attempt to explain or resist his feelings - he simply accepts what he feels and acts accordingly.
This is perhaps a suitable point to discuss the quotes at the very start of the film:
"To be is to do" - Socrates, "To do is to be" - Sartre, "Do be do be do" - Sinatra
These quotes provide an essential key to understanding the film and what Besson is trying (I think!) to say.
Philosophers have tried since the beginning of time to capture the essence and meaning of life, and summarise it in a few brief words. Besson, it appears, is saying this cannot be - life cannot be summed up and explained. We do what we feel we have to do, in accordance with our nature, if we are honest with ourselves. Society may have imposed its laws and customs, but below the surface we are at the mercy of our nature, which contains a stronger force than any artificially imposed structure of law and morality.
It is suggested we cannot fully account for what we are or the way we act. Nature cannot be fully explained in spite of our attempts to analyse and master it. This conflict between civilisation and man's nature is one of the key themes of the film. We are all under pressure to conform, one way or another, be it as an exploiter of society or one of its protectors, but Fred manages to go his own way, incurring the wrath of both sides in the process.
We are not entirely sure what to make of Fred, but we find him more attractive than his opponents. Perhaps this is because he appears so innocent and direct. He appears to bear no malice to anyone - he simply acts on what is in his heart. While we recognise the necessity for laws, our encounter with him may cause us to question our own place in society, indeed the very nature of society.
Within this society there is no reference to an ultimate authority, no immediate and unquestioning acceptance of the superiority of society's protectors. Each character does what he or she feels he must do - each acts in accordance with his nature. Here there is no morality. We are all free, though we may concede to pressure and end up playing a role in life rather than leading the life we might choose for ourselves if we had the courage and strength to do so. Helena has become dissatisfied with her life and is looking for something, or someone, more spontaneous and original. Gesberg (chief inspector) is equally disillusioned, though perhaps for different reasons - he has lost faith in and respect for the system, and is rewarded with only fleeting moments of success. The rest of the time he is reminded of the robotic nature of his job, or he is faced with a picture of a system in decay in which the criminal element seems to be gaining the upper hand.
Most of the other characters are relatively content with their lot and simply get on with the business of living, apart from Fred who is in search of fulfilment through music. Here we have a young man who is relatively untainted by society, and who dares to try to impose his will upon it rather than seek a place within it. This attitude inspires attraction and admiration in some, and perhaps some jealousy in others.
What we have, then, is a film noir in which the characters are painted in various shades of grey, and a world which causes us to reflect on society and our place within it. It is a modern play on existentialism, in which the nature and very existence of morality is called into question and each character exercises an influence on the lives and fates of the others.
From grey to blue
"The Big Blue" is significantly different from "Subway" in that the structure of society is not so much criticised as investigated with regard to the place within it of Jacques the misfit diver who has seemingly supernatural powers, or rather whose very nature is called into question.
"Big Blue" has a different and gentler feel to it, perhaps not least because it is based on a true story and is therefore stranger than any fiction Besson might have dared attempt to put on screen. Here he does not have to struggle to make his characters believable or acceptable - he is not responsible for their development as he is simply recounting their story as it happened (more or less).
Once again we are taken below the surface to see things as they really are.
Jacques Mayol is happiest when he is underwater. He is often ill at ease when having to deal with others, and prefers the company of dolphins to that of men. Indeed he appears to regard dolphins as something of a kindred spirit. He dives professionally, helping salvage crews and working with insurance companies yet he appears to take little real interest or pride in the work - he does it because he loves diving. This is his talent, his nature, and he uses his talent as much to indulge himself as to help others. To him, diving is an end in itself and working while diving is a means of making ends meet.
For Enzo Molinari, a fellow diver and world champion, diving is also a way of life - it is how he makes his living, but his principal concern is with proving himself the best. He is a gregarious and sociable character with a great zest for, and love of, life. He is also very competitive.
Within society there is an overwhelming need not so much to succeed, but to defeat others. Achievement seems to count for less than winning, and Enzo must defeat Jacques if he is truly to consider himself world champion.
Into this world comes Jacques who is entirely natural and is unmotivated by greed, ambition, or jealousy. He appears to wander from one job to another, with no particular end in mind, and no real sense of ambition.
Enzo is world champion but he is haunted by the fact that he knows Jacques may be capable of beating him. He feels the need to prove himself to the most important judge of all - himself. However, when invited to take part in the championships Jacques asks simply, "Why?". He then assures Enzo that he is the best, but with a moment's hesitation reminiscent of the time inGreece when, as youngsters, Enzo proves himself by diving for a coin in place of Jacques. He is tempted to compete against Enzo, not so much because he feels the need to confirm his superiority - he knows, quite simply, that he can out-dive his friend Enzo, but he really does not want to get involved in the social circus surrounding these events. Becoming champion is not a priority for Jacques - he has no need to prove himself, and no desire to hurt his friend or take his place as world champion. Yet he knows within himself that he is the better of the two.
Jacques and Johana are drawn to one another from the start. Once again we see the theme of love or attraction being inexplicable and unstoppable. Johana goes to considerable lengths to pursue her "prey", and Jacques is delighted to see her again though he is somewhat ill at ease and awkward with relationships. Again the chemistry between characters is difficult to define and their love endures hardships until the end when Jacques must give in to his nature and follow his heart.
Jacques cannot cope with a serious and long-term relationship involving responsibility. He is not "made" for that aspect of social life. His spirit belongs to the sea. The sea is his home and there comes a point where he must choose between "acting" in a society in which he feels uncomfortable, or following his instincts.
Johana, sadly, is equally drawn to Jacques and can do little to combat her attraction. She is in the unfortunate position of coming second to Jacques' true love.
Once again we are invited to consider the place of the individual in society, though not so much as a challenge to the structure of that society, but more from the point of view of the capacity of society to cope with those who are unconventional or whose nature does not allow them to conform to the norm. We are equally invited to consider the capacity of those "misfits" to cope with the demands and pressures placed upon them by society.
As Jacques becomes increasingly involved in competitive diving, this leads to greater social pressure and accentuates the questions concerning his nature and his place in society, and above all it raises questions concerning his relationship with Johana. With this pressure Jacques appears to withdraw ever more deeply within himself to the extent that he begins to confuse mental images with reality.
Could it be that Jacques is slipping steadily into a deepening depression? (The "big blue" of the title?). He appears less and less able to cope with social demands such as those incurred by his relationship, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with going deeper and for longer than ever, to the point where he feels he "has to know" - but what remains unspecified. Is it how far he can go, or does he want to know his true nature, or is it simply to gain knowledge of what is unknown? What we do know is that he was previously happy with his lot - he didn't know how to ask questions, but being surrounded by people has fired his thirst for knowledge (about the world and himself), but this knowledge has led inexorably to a loss of happiness and innocence.
The clash between these characters whose lives are entwined in spite of themselves forms the basis for this tragi-drama in which each main character exercises a considerable (if unintended) influence on the others, and is pushed to the limit of his or her endurance as they follow their instincts.
Once again we have an examination of the influence we have on one another's lives, though on this occasion concentration is maintained on this issue rather than the issue of morality.
Nikita - back to black
With "Nikita" Besson returns to familiar territory, questioning the nature of society and morality, the place of the individual within that society, and the potential for personal growth and development.
Once again we are taken underground - Nikita is trained in an underground establishment and she certainly has to deal with the underworld, a world most of us have little opportunity to see, yet which forms a basis for the world in which most of us live.
Nikita is recruited to serve with France 's secret service. It is suggested they make use of criminal types to protect the interests of the State. Those in authority are portrayed as ruthless but dedicated to their task. They have complete and blind faith in the sanctity of their mission, to protect the State at all costs. Clearly morality has little place in this world as they do whatever they feel they must do to defend the interests of the citizens of France.
To help achieve their aim, they must use people who are willing to kill or at the least whose consciences are unlikely to trouble them. It appears that Nikita fits into this category as she was responsible for the death of a policeman in a burglary at the age of 19. It is assumed she is psychologically suitable for the necessary work, and she is trained with considerable success after a decidedly weak start after which she is threatened with death.
We feel great sympathy for Nikita and the situation in which she finds herself. Thrown onto the streets at a tender age by an uncaring mother, Nikita has learned to survive in the urban jungle, but has got involved with a group of addicts who will stop at nothing to feed their habit. When she kills the policeman she is clearly under the influence of a foreign substance and is therefore less responsible for her actions, though we would certainly not wish to condone her actions - we do feel a degree of sympathy.
The representatives of the State offer Nikita a second chance - to serve the State. At first she is uncooperative, but she learns discipline for the first time in her life, and learns how to learn and develop. It is worth noting that the State is responsible for her development. Of course the authorities wish to use her talents for their own ends, but nonetheless the State provides the education and direction she has lacked and which she sorely needs.
However, it appears the State has sorely underestimated Nikita and her capacities. She accepts her position at first, accomplishing a variety of missions for the benefit of the State, including assassinations. There is a sense of duty and perhaps more importantly a sense of debt. She must pay her debt to society - both for the death of the policeman and her second chance. Unfortunately for the State she evolves into something more than the psychopath tool they thought they were creating. She develops into an independent and self-respecting young woman who has developed a greater sense of morality than her masters. She is willing to perform the tasks set her, but on her own terms, and without violence.
Eventually she gains freedom from the secret service by using the very techniques in which they trained her, but at a price - she must lose her fiance Marco and her immediate superior, Bob for whom she had deep feelings.
Yet again love is seen as uncontrollable and perhaps impossible. Nikita enters into a happy and stable relationship with Marco, but at the end of the film we discover that her heart belongs to Bob. She is aware that a relationship with Bob would be dangerous and doubtless hurtful to both, so she avoids a physical relationship. However, she can do nothing to prevent the feelings and emotions within her, and she reveals her feelings in a letter left for Bob.
Fred lost his life as a result of pursuing his nature and love for Helena. Jacques abandoned his love for Johana to pursue his nature. Now Nikita has learned to contain her feelings and pursue her future as an independent woman taking control of her life while recognising her sentiments but refusing to give in to them. There would appear to be something of a progression in these characters, going from blindly following one's nature to making a conscious choice, to taking control and exercising maturity. The main characters share certain traits but display an increasingly mature way of dealing with what life throws at them.
"Nikita" is perhaps as much about growing up as it is about the place of the individual in relation to the State, or the nature of love. Nikita evolves more than either Fred or Jacques in the course of the film - she goes from being a lost, animal-like creature doing what is necessary for survival, to a mature, disciplined, and thoughtful individual who has learned from her experience and who has developed beyond the level of her hypocritical but determined masters.
It is interesting to note that Bob, the State's representative also controls his feelings for Nikita, though he does not develop in any other direction. He remains the same cool professional he was at the start of the film, his faith in the State and its activities completely intact.
It is also worthy of note that just as the principal characters appear to develop and grow, the societies in which they evolve appear to deteriorate and decay (morally speaking).
In "Subway" society is seen as a morally grey place, with everyone doing what they have to do to survive, but with a fairly clear delineation between "goodies" and "baddies". In "Nikita", however, things have become decidedly darker, with the authorities using the same tactics as their enemies to gain the upper hand, albeit in order to fulfil their mission to protect the public. While in "Leon " police activities are subverted to suit the ends of the evil police officer Stansfield - the forces of "good" being used to advance criminal activities, Leon , a professional killer, becomes the protector of the innocent.
Leon- from black to grey again
The world in which Leon operates is the blackest of these four films. He is a professional killer employed by the underworld to resolve its problems in a particularly direct manner.
The police, traditionally seen as the protectors of society, are used by the manipulating and cynical Stansfield to promote his criminal plans. No-one is innocent in the film (except perhaps Mathilda), but there is no recourse to justice. Actions are therefore left to the individual's sense of duty and fairness, and it is at this point that Leon discovers within himself feelings of which he was previously unaware, and he takes on the mantle of protector, undergoing the transformation from robotic killer to defender of the innocent.
Leon inspires considerable pathos. He is somewhat child-like himself in that he is uneducated, loyal and unquestioning toward his "family" in the underworld. He accepts without doubt his missions and exists purely to fulfil his contracts. He appears to have little life beyond his professional activities. He has been trained as a killer and is entirely devoted and obedient to his "family".
It is only when he encounters Mathilda, a relatively "innocent" 12 year old whose dubious family falls foul of Stansfield and is to be executed, that Leon's inner feelings of paternal care are awakened. At one point he considers killing her himself, but he cannot bring himself to do so - for perhaps the first time he is listening to his own heart and concedes to his own feelings. He is becoming his own man, independent and thoughtful.
Once again we witness the themes of personal growth and development, the questioning of the existence of morality, and the evolution of feelings of love in spite of ourselves, though in this case there is an even stronger bond. This time the love is more akin to that of a parent and child, with the parent being willing to do anything to protect their child - to the point of self-sacrifice.
Love is a catalytic factor in this growth and leads to the discovery of morality and deeper feelings than either is accustomed to. This leads equally to increased self-respect and doubts over past actions, while paternal devotion replaces the previous emptiness of Leon 's life and gives him a much needed purpose and sense of responsibility.
It is curious that it is through a man who made his living dealing in immorality that Mathilda should discover love and respect as the death of her family inadvertantly provides her with the opportunity of growing and developing - rather like a young Nikita, but one who was fortunate to have found affection and guidance early in her life. In the same way Leon is very similar to Victor in "Nikita", though more human and touched by love and a sense of responsibility.
Le Dernier Combat
Several years after encountering Besson's films, I have finally acquired his first full length feature!
Made on a smaller scale and (perhaps as a result of this) more symbolically poetic than his later films, "Le Dernier Combat" nonetheless establishes the pattern developed in his subsequent work.
We see society in disarray and moral decay. We question the place of the individual in that society, and we study the integrity of the potentially amoral "hero". The amorality/immorality of the "baddies" reflects the existential nature of life in this post-apocalyptic world.
The characters here are more clearly representations of attitudes or differing elements of society than the more idiosyncratic and finely honed characters developed in his other films, though it could be argued this lends the film greater clarity of intent.
Setting a film which invites its audience to reflect on society, freedom, morality and individuality in a post apocalyptic future has numerous advantages, the principal advantage being that the facade of civilisation has gone and we are left with man's true nature. This situation again lends simplicity and clarity, allowing the film's "messages" to come across all the more clearly.
Besson's later films are more complex and daring in that they deal with the apparent disintegration and decay of society while the facade remains intact. This subsequent setting also allows (or demands) more complex development of his characters.
"Le Dernier Combat" sets the pattern and makes clear where Besson wants to go. It is a remarkable first feature length film which is a worthy addition to collections in its own right, but it is made all the more interesting when viewed "retrospectively" and compared to Besson's later films.
Kiss of the Dragon
Co-written and produced by Besson (directed by Chris Nahon), this features many of the elements we have already seen in Besson's earlier films.
The main character is once again an "outsider" (this time a highly principled and caring Chinese police officer) brought to Paris to help investigate a Chinese drugs connection. Once again the hero remains true to himself when pitted against a corrupt Parisian policeman who uses his position and influence to further his own (criminal) activities.
The fight scenes are quite superb, indeed the whole is well directed and played by Jet Li, Bridget Fonda and Tcheky Karyo (of "Nikita" fame). If there is a weakness, it is in what is usually a strength in a Besson film - the character development. They are undoubtedly well drawn, but in this film no-one really develops. There are no real changes in position or attitude. There is plenty of drama and action, but there are few thought-provoking observations of life and this makes it that bit less engaging and perhaps less successful as a whole.
It seemed to me that there were numerous references to previous Besson pictures - shots of the Metro ("Subway"), shootings in hotels/restaurants, the laundry chute escape, the reference to the girl's possible escape through the toilet window, Fonda's unwillingness to kill (all in "Nikita"). More markedly, there were resemblances to "Leon " with Richard being a Parisian Stansfield, the abuse of his power, the extreme reaction and fire-power of the police, as well as the involvement of a child whose life Liu Jian must save.
I found the film very entertaining and exciting, if a bit derivative of Besson's previous efforts.
Angels in black and white (*spoilers*)
While "Angel-A" may not be a crowd pleaser or a big money spinner, it is a most worthy addition to M. Besson's filmography as a director. I found it entertaining, funny, absorbing, touching, thought-provoking and above all, interesting. It is also an abnormally intimate film. The focus is firmly on the two main characters. While the other characters may be in turn amusing, intimidating and even to some extent memorable, they are merely there to shed light upon the main characters or to advance the story line.
I wondered if such a long absence from the director's chair meant that M. Besson had said all he had to say on the themes outlined above, but I am reassured to find that he has once again delivered an interesting take on the themes of personal growth, love, morality, society and even existentialism.
There is, however, an essential difference. In his films discussed above, the main characters were outsiders or loners who challenged society's rules and who struggled to find a place in that society while remaining true to their natures. In "Angel-A" Andre has succumbed to social pressure and has tried to fit in, only to find himself in trouble. He is an insider trying (or needing) to get out. He has not been true to his (honest) nature and he has become involved in amoral business dealings, doing deals with shady characters in order to survive. He has tried to fit in and has lied in order to please, and as a result he has lost any sense of worth - in his own eyes as well as in others'.
Angela arrives when he is at his lowest ebb, when considering suicide, and sets about helping Andre both directly and by helping him to recover his self respect.
Andre does not seek to impose his will on society, nor to attack it - he is encouraged by Angela to seek freedom from the imposition of others' wills and not to be controlled. This freedom is to be gained through self respect and the rejection of others' views of him. Andre is persuaded by Angela's belief in him - not by the fact that she is an angel. Indeed the implications of this (morality, soul, afterlife) are largely ignored. At the end of the film the situation is rather turned on its head as Andre asks Angela to gain her freedom from God. He invites her to leave God out of it, and to make her own decisions and follow her own feelings. Once again God and religion are set aside in favour of following one's heart and nature.
Both Andre and Angela need "saving" and redirection - he from the emptiness of lying and scheming, and she from the emptiness of having no attachments or any sense of real value. Once again love leads to freedom and self respect, and in this case freedom from being "owned2 or intimidated by others. They end up belonging to themselves and one another. It might even be suggested that in the end Andre acts in the same way as an angel, thus the "A" after Angel could also stand for Andre.
Of course, on the way to this end there is a process of self discovery with life lessons galore, the whole being told with an entertaining mixture of humour and purpose. Wherever he turns for help - be it the American Embassy or a police station - he is faced with red tape and lack of warmth and caring. Andre is invited to keep things in proportion and to keep his eye on the "bigger picture2 rather than become over anxious about relatively minor problems. He is reminded of the values he held, but which he lost sight of in his desire to succeed in society, and he is reminded that "success" in an amoral and self centred society is perhaps success without value.
Angela wants Andre to cease living in fear and to see beyond the projected self-image of others, and to recognise equality among men. We all role-play in society - we all play parts in others' lives, but Andre has allowed himself to be governed by others' perceptions and has compromised to such an extent that he has virtually caved in and given up on himself.
Angela helps him gain self respect and recognise weaknesses as well as strengths in others, thus he no longer feels inferior. In the end he has been freed from fear and the need to accommodate others. He has learned to recognise his own value and break from his former vision of society and his place in it.
An entertaining and intriguing mixture of "traditional" angel tale and Besson's common theme of the nature of society and the place of the individual within it, this film is set against the stunning black and white backdrop of Paris , and the story is told with his usual energy and humour. Luc Besson's direction is totally assured - he knows what he is doing and where he is going with this story. He addresses serious issues, but uses a very light touch to deal with them, thus the whole is playful and entertaining, yet thought-provoking and interesting.
To my page on angel films.
As I have already suggested, it seems to me that these films present various takes on the principles of existentialism. They are set in extreme conditions or are played out with extreme characters, but that only serves to accentuate the points being made. The films present interesting and thought provoking observations on life and society and as such are to be highly commended.
It seems to me that there is a progression in the development of these themes in the course of these six Besson-directed films, with society (and morality) depicted as being in a steady decline, while the main characters develop their own sense of morality and justice, perhaps suggesting that ultimately society depends on the values of the individuals within it and every man (or woman!) must learn to reflect on what is important to him or her.
It is also worth noting that religion plays no obvious or major part in the proceedings.
I have yet to see "Joan of Arc" and "Atlantis", so I can pass no opinion on these works, but I have seen "The Fifth Element" and while I found it visually stunning and entertaining, I felt it lacked the maturity and interest of M. Besson's earlier works. I recently saw "Taxi" (written and produced by Besson) and thoroughly enjoyed its humour and visual style, though I felt this was definitely "Besson light" as it also lacked the interest and import of his previous efforts, though I am sure this was quite deliberate in this case.
It is with sadness that I have to report the death of Jacques Mayol, the diver on whose life "The Big Blue" was based. He took his own life during the Christmas period, 2001, at the age of 74, on theisland of Elba , which he had made his home some time before.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope it was of some benefit to you.
A friend and I made a DVD "documentary" based on these notes, and it has been posted on Youtube. It runs to about 45 minutes and has been posted as five separate videos. You can access them by searching for "luc besson themes" in Youtube, or by clicking below:
Stuart Fernie ( firstname.lastname@example.org)