Luc Besson, one of the most powerful figures in French cinema, once told a reporter he would quit directing films after he completed ten features. Now, with the release of the animated Arthur and the Invisibles and the opening in the United States of Angel-A, the director has reached his limit. Picking at a plate of berries and crème fraîche in a hotel bar overlooking Battery Park in downtown Manhattan, Besson chooses his words carefully when talking about his future.
“I’m finished,” he starts. “I’m scared of saying the same things over and over, and at the same time I have less ambition or passion. Even athletes have to accept that one day they can’t keep beating their records.” Besson has worked almost non-stop for thirty years, and collapsed twice on the set of his previous directing effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. He claims to be satisfied just writing and producing films for his EuropaCorp production company. Then he offers a qualified hedge: “If tomorrow I fall in love with a script, if I have a new purpose, if I have something fresh to say, if I can take on another three-year project, then maybe I will decide to direct again.”
Arthur and the Invisibles, adapted from a series of children’s books penned by Besson, took some five years to complete. It was the director’s first attempt to work with animation, and he ended up managing a crew of seven hundred while assembling a voice cast that included stars like Madonna, David Bowie and Robert De Niro. In contrast, Angel-A marked a return of sorts to Besson’s early career. Jemel Debbouze, a stand-up comedian who stars as a down-on-his-luck con man, was struck by the manic nature of the shoot. “Luc shot the film like it was a no-budget short–seven or eight of us in a van driving round Paris, him with the camera on his shoulder, until we found a spot he liked. Then we’d pile out and shoot the scene.”
What Debbouze saw as chaos was actually only one aspect of a meticulously planned production. Besson actually began writing the script for Angel-A ten years ago, “but I was too young. I had the story, but I couldn’t make the characters talk. What should have been one line of dialogue took ten. It was a nightmare.” When the director returned to the idea, he finished a draft within three weeks. After casting Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen, a Danish model who plays the title role, he spent six weeks rehearsing the leads.
At the same time, Besson was consulting notes he had amassed over thirty years documenting his favorite Parisian locations. “I’d be on my motorcycle and stop and write down that at 5:00 p.m., the sun hits this bridge just right. I also sent my assistant to photograph my favorite twelve bridges, each hour, from each quadrant, north, east, south, west. So I ended up with a big book of all the locations. I knew before we shot that the sun shining through the grille of one bridge would cast these beautiful shadows on Rie’s legs, like dots on stockings.”
Besson and his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast decided to shoot in black-and-white in part as an homage to Brassaï, Lartigue and the other great still photographers of the city. “We made the images out of iron, stone, and sky because they are the heart of Paris,” Besson enthuses. “And we had rehearsed so well that we could shoot on location, on these famous bridges, without stopping traffic, without setting up a single pedestrian barrier.” Angel-A offers one striking image after another of a beautiful but almost deserted city, its architectural treasures enveloped in broad swaths of shadow and light.
“Black-and-white is real, but it no longer looks totally real,” Besson explains. “It’s like you’re floating. Plus this is a film about oppositions. Man, woman; small, tall; dark, light; Right Bank, Left Bank. Black-and-white was just another element to play with.”
Besson has asked reporters not to reveal the film’s plot; it might be helpful to imagine Samuel Beckett’s It’s a Wonderful Life with a leggy, blonde supermodel as the angel. The biggest surprise about Angel-A, especially considering the director’s reputation for action, is its intense romanticism. In the film’s central scene, Debbouze’s character stands in front of a mirror, forced to confront everything wrong with himself. As Besson puts it, “He’s small, he’s from a minority, he’s lying all the time, and what he has to do is accept the fact that he is beautiful inside even though he hates himself. In a way that’s sort of what Jemel has gone through in his real life. For fifteen years he’s been hiding behind his comedy act, hiding because he’s small, he’s Arabic, and he had this accident that made his one arm sort of dead.”
The director could see that the actor was afraid of the scene, essentially a three-minute monologue that offered no place to hide. Originally the director planned to shoot it in the middle of the production schedule, but two days before he decided to hold off. “Three weeks later Jemel feels more comfortable with himself and I reschedule it again. I was trying to figure when would be the best moment to help him, but to help the film as well. And at the end I said to him, we’re gonna do it the last day. He’s a little melancholy already about the film ending, so that’s why I push for the last day of shooting, so I can use that emotion. And what you have in the film is the first take. We were both crying afterward. It was like he was experiencing it in his life, not just in the film.”
Through EuropaCorp, Besson oversees ten to twelve projects a year, writing and/or producing many of them himself. He started the company because of the trouble he had financing his earlier films. “Half my time was spent taking care of money,” he complains. “I start my day and I was already tired. Now I have great people taking care of everything. Maybe eighty per cent of my time is creative, whereas ten years ago that would only be forty per cent.”
Besson describes EuropaCorp as “artisanal” filmmaking. “Our approach is, this is the film we want to do, how are we going to find money to do it? In Hollywood, it’s the reverse: This is how much we want to spend, what kind of film can we get? There’s a real disconnect with some Hollywood people. When we were trying to sell Danny the Dog (a Jet Li vehicle released in the United States as Unleashed), we met marketing people who said, ‘We really like it, but we don’t know how to release it, so we’re going to pass.’ It’s like they don’t want to do their job.”
If they share any one trait, films from EuropaCorp are marked by their quick, punchy editing, something Besson takes a personal hand in. Talking about the popular Transporter series, for example, he explains how his contributions went beyond scripting and casting. “The freshness is very important on the editing. When you spend too much time on a film, you get lost. You don’t know anymore what is funny, what is too fast. I’m always the last one to watch a cut because I want to be fresh, I want to be the last bullet.”
Critics have been notably harsh with Besson, who has been accused of everything from plagiarism to “the end of French cinema as we know it” with 1990’s La Femme Nikita. The filmmaker insists that he doesn’t mind personal criticism. “People who pay to see the film are never aggressive, they’re never mean. They don’t like something, that’s fine, that’s how you choose between what you want and what you don’t want. But professional critics–why would a newspaper send a seventy-year-old guy to review Transporter or District B-13? They’re not for him.
“Plus the reviews come out right after you’ve finished the film, the moment when you’re the most vulnerable. You have no skin, believe me. It’s like I’m afraid to see my mom, my brother, the butcher down the street, worried about what they think. You know, no one is perfect in his own country. I have so much trouble in France, they all hate me, but that’s another story.”