The Big Blue

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most eagerly awaited movie was The Big Blue, a three-hour-plus French epic that boasted the largest budget and perhaps the most complicated shooting schedule of any French production.

It caused something of a storm at Cannes—there was some controversy surrounding its English-language soundtrack, for one thing—and has caused another storm since at French box offices, where it’s dominating the summer business and inspiring the kind of repeat business common to American blockbusters.

For such a source of interest, The Big Blue is a curious production. It’s a sonnet to the sea, the big “blue” of the title, and to the mysterious lure of its awesome depths. All of which is communicated through a story about diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), transfixed by the beauty of the ocean, and his rivalry with Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno), who holds the world record for free-diving.

Free-diving involves going straight down into the water without equipment, which tests a diver’s lung capacity and endurance. These rivals keep plunging deeper and deeper while they strike up a tentative friendship through Mayol’s innocence about the ways of the world above sea level; when he shows Enzo pictures in his wallet, they are photos of his dolphin friends.

Director Luc Besson (Subway), a 29-year-old whiz kid, compiled his story from his own fascination with the sea and from the real life of Jacques Mayol, a semi-legendary French diver (Mayol worked on the script with Besson and American writer Robert Garland).

Besson captures some mystery around Mayol’s character and Mayol’s testy relationship with Enzo; in one scene, the two divers sit at the bottom of a hotel pool and open a bottle of champagne, waiting to see who will run out of oxygen first. Well-drawn, too, is the comical brother act of Enzo and his sibling/servant, Roberto (Marc Duret). Besson is less successful in the inclusion of an American woman (Rosanna Arquette, in a backward-step performance) who falls for Mayol and follows him around the Mediterranean. The whole character feels extraneous and underconceived.

But then a few elements in the movie are underdeveloped. A sidebar sequence about returning a dolphin from an aquarium to the ocean remains a sidebar, and there’s an odd sequence in which Arquette develops a sudden domesticity. The movie must have made more sense at its full-length running time; the American version has been cut down by a hefty chunk from the European release. (It’s also opening in a dramatically larger number of theaters—1,200—than the usual foreign film.)

The Big Blue is probably not going to justify that wide release. It’s too odd, and too many things in it don’t work. But as a cult film, it could surface for air on a regular basis.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

It’s another Jerry Weintraub production! See here for more details. Three of the actors came for a publicity tour: Barr, Reno, and Marc Duret, who had an awfully good time eating lunch at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle (it’s kind of cool that of the two leads, the non-glamorous Reno went on to have the king-sized career; nothing against pinup-ready Barr, who has the advantage of being a Lars von Trier favorite). Clearly a sense of reality was beginning to intrude on my ideas about Rosanna Arquette—and only three years after The Aviator, too. If this movie was blah, Luc Besson’s subsequent output has made him a semi-guilty pleasure for me—his cheesiest plots throb with a certain movie-movie appeal, although his best notions get directed by other people these days.

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