Don't look at Jaques as if he was a human being, he comes from another planet.
Originally released in 1988, The Big Blue marked Director Luc Besson's (Subway, La Femme Nikita), first English language film. A financial disaster, insult to injury was compounded by the fact that the US distributor trimmed the movie to a mere 118 minutes, replaced Eric Serra's score with one by Bill Conti and tacked on a more upbeat, "Hollywood-style" ending. (Can anyone say Brazil?—Ed)
Presented here for the first on home video is the complete 168-minute director's version.
For this release Columbia delivers a very good, if slightly flawed anamorphic transfer and a lively 5.1 mix that highlights the efforts of Composer Eric Serra.
While I would like to say that the extended version makes The Big Blue a more coherent film, I can't. What remains is a visually compelling experience that approaches the poetic but in the end is both too long and too awkward.
Facts of the Case
Childhood friends Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr), and Enzo (Jean Reno), carry their lifelong competition of free diving into contests around Europe, braving danger and possible death.
Enzo, the world champion, wishes for the challenge he knows his old friend will give him. For his part, Jacques wants to forget the memory of his father'd death, who was also a diver and earn Enzo's respect while finally beating him at a game the two have been playing for years.
Through his travels Jacques meets the beautiful but ditzy insurance investigator, Johanna (Rosanna Arquette). Falling instantly in love with the handsome diver, Johanna risks her job to run after him while he competes at the World Championship's in Sicily.
They do indeed get together, Johanna does lose her job and she moves back to Europe so the two may be together. What she did not count on is the effect the sea has on Jacques and the way it always seems to pull him deeper and deeper.
The competition between Jacques and Enzo continues to heat up with the two driving the other farther down to the depths of the ocean. Where or when will it end? Will they or can they survive and where does that leave Johanna?
Of all the movies directed by Luc Besson, who is considered to be the French equivalent to Steven Spielberg, The Big Blue is easily his most personal film. Coming from a childhood that was spent by the sea, both of his parents were divers, Besson himself wanting to be a Marine Biologist until an accident cut short his diving days. With this background the director is in a unique position to tell this story and unlike many directors, Besson understands the vast beauty underneath the waves and shows the danger and the wonder that lurks below the surface.
Based in part on the life of Diver Jacques Mayol, who co-wrote the screenplay with Besson, the film is a meditation on the hypnotic spell the sea casts upon people and the way they live their lives.
As the enigma named Jacques Mayol, Jean-Marc Barr (Breaking The Waves, Hope and Glory), cuts quite an impressive figure. It really is too bad that Barr is given nothing to play. He seems unable to connect with any of the people around him or even himself.
As written by Besson, Jacques really is almost an alien. The only things he seems to relate to is the sea and the dolphins that he calls his family. In fact the only way he is able to become intimate with Arquette's character is by becoming drunk. In spite of all that however, Barr does show real star power and is not so easily dismissed as an actor.
The flip side of Jacques is Jean Reno (Ronin, Mission Impossible) as the extroverted Ezno Molinari. A man secure in who he is, he is haunted by knowing there is indeed someone out there better than he is, although he would never admit it. The thought of a man with a broad and expansive view of life being played by the usually understated Reno comes in the beginning as something of a stretch. As the film moves along, Reno manages to loosen up and even manages to take on an elegant quality. In what is probably the best written role in the film, Reno truly shines.
Since every love triangle needs a third person, The Big Blue gives us Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction, After Hours), as Johanna. It's pretty obvious that in her early scenes in the movie Arquette is reaching and playing her character fairly broadly. This is due in part to Besson's underwriting of her role but as the film grows, so does her performance. She has always been an actress that I have thought to be underrated and her work in the latter part of the movie really shows her gifts. She manages to sell the idea of falling in love with someone at first sight and how painful that love becomes as she begins to know who Jacques really is.
There are two other characters in The Big Blue that don't get star billing and that is the cinematography of Carlo Varini and the score of Eric Serra (GoldenEye, The Fifth Element). Both command a presence within the film that are impossible to ignore.
Varini gives the movie a dreamlike quality, a kind of dark sensuality that permeates every frame. There is depth to found in the images as well as a kind of mystical nature that makes the sea and the creatures that live within it as important to the story as are the actors.
For his part Serra proves once more why he is one of the most criminally underrated film composers working today. Besson's longtime partner in movie making, Serra's music is as much a part of the movie as are the light, the shadow and the water. He perfectly captures mood, highlights tension and underlines the movie's inherent sexuality. It is beautiful music and one of the best film scores of the '80s.
Framed at the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Columbia gives the film an anamorphic transfer that gives all of the beautiful cinematography its due with a picture that is stunning in its detail. Blacks are solid and show little to no shimmer. This is not to say that all things are perfect. There are some minor instances of edge enhancement that pop up from time to time. Even more annoying are problems with the actual source material. There are noticeable signs of nicks and scratches throughout the movie but of more concern is the presence of the movie's reel markers. It is hard to miss, these marks kind of look like burn marks in the upper right hand corner of the movie. It happens often enough to be annoying and I'm surprised it was not cleaned up by Columbia.
The Big Blue is given a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and its pretty effective. While panning effects are limited, the rear surrounds are used to create space and atmosphere and are very successful in that regard. Dialogue is clearly heard and the biggest plus in the mix is the presence of Eric Serra's score. Background distortion is held to a minimum with there being no trace of hiss or other distractions.
Also worth noting is there is a French language track that is listed on the packaging as Dolby Surround. In trying out the disc I hit the French track and found that it was instead also 5.1 . Nice surprise if I understood French.
Outside of an isolated score track in Dolby 2.0 Surround things are pretty bare. There are some talent files for the main people involved, as well as a couple of still for the movie's international ad campaign and that is about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has so much going for it, in production, performance and scoring but is let down by Besson's first English language screenplay, which is awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least. Words that are meant to be profound and moving end up sounding merely trite and simplistic.
While I always support a director's unfiltered vision, this version of The Big Blue, at 168 minutes, is far too long. It seems at times that nothing is really happening and that it takes such a long time to do so. Scenes begin and end with very little rhyme or reason. The whole concept of the romance between Rosanna Arquette's character and the one played by Jean-Marc Barr seems to exist because they are the two most beautiful people in the movie and because Barr's character needs to make a choice between the love of a woman or love of the sea.
The movie also makes one cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned. The film features Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf In London, After Hours), in a supporting role and he is totally wasted. One of the funniest actors known to man, to not use him to the fullest extent is grounds for arrest.
I remember seeing The Big Blue in a New Orleans art house around the time of its original release and found myself thinking that the film was extraordinarily beautiful but made no sense. 12 years and over an hour of footage later, I feel pretty much the same way.
As a disc, well there are certain problems with the video transfer that are noted above but I really wish a commentary track or extensive "making of" documentary would have been included. As Besson's most experimental film and his most personal, I would have liked to know his thoughts on the movie's creation and execution.
Also, I am a big fan of isolated movie scores and I certainly appreciate the effort to include one in the first place but while Columbia was at it, would it really have been so hard to make the music track in 5.1 as well?
The Big Blue is a difficult film to render a judgment on. The movie is stunning to look at and certainly carries a certain degree of power. A power which borderlines on the mystic but in the end is undone by Besson's clumsy script.
The movie is worthwhile and fans of the director are no doubt thrilled to have the disc readily available. With their release Columbia turns in their usual fine job on the video/audio end of things but the extras are a little light.
My call would be to check it out as a rental and make a purchase based upon that initial impression.
Luc Besson is asked by the court to sharpen his writing skills but is warmly thanked for being the supreme visual artist that is so well represented by his work on The Big Blue. Columbia is once more thanked for their contributions to the DVD world with another good looking release.
Now is only someone would release anamorphic widescreen versions of other Besson classics such as Subway and Atlantis.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Isolated Music Score
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