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THE BIG BLUE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Rosanna Arquette
Director:  Luc Besson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Trailers, Isolated Score, Talent Files, Ad Campaign Gallery
Length:  168 Minutes
Release Date:  August 15, 2000

Film ***1/2

At the heart of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue is the story of a rather unusual friendship between two men who are as different as prose and poetry, yet are bound by a unique talent and rivalry that keeps them heading further and further into the depths of the sea.

Both men are free divers, a sport considered one of the world’s most dangerous.  It involves plummeting to depths of sometimes 300 feet or greater, with no scuba gear, and only one breath of air to make the trip down and up.  Enzo (Reno) is the current world champion, and he loves the fame and glory and occasional chunk of money the sport throws his way.  He is an amusing character all around, who enjoys his larger than life way of living…even going so far as to monogram “ENZO” in big letters on his diving suit. 

Jacques (Barr) is equally talented, but differently motivated.  A sometimes shy and awkward man on land, the sea seems to be his true home, where he swims and plays with dolphins, and even managed to develop their unique physical trait of being able to keep the blood in his brain during long, breathless swims.  He is not a competitor…until Enzo looks him up after 20 years and invites him to partake.

From the time they were kids, Jacques swam to be one with the water, and Enzo did it for ego.  Though already champion, Enzo feels he must be able to beat Jacques to truly be the best.  And the competition between the men grows, becoming more and more dangerous with each dive.

I’ve compared the men to prose and poetry, and Luc Besson seems to comment on these traits cinematically.  Each man’s first dive is presented to us in a different style.  When Enzo dives, it looks straightforward and realistic.  It happens in real time, and we hear nothing but the noise of the machine that takes them down and the surrounding waters.  Later, when Jacques makes his dive, the action is slowed down.  The music slowly but surely takes over.  The dialogue disappears, leaving the sounds of the songs of the underwater mammals in its place.  The camera lingers peacefully over him as he prepares to dive.  When he reaches his mark, he’s more interested in the chirping of nearby dolphins than in the record he’s set.

We even see the contrast with the way the men move underwater.  Enzo, though talented, is an outsider in the sea.  He swims powerfully, but like a human, with arms and legs driving his body through forcefully but unceremoniously.  Jacques swims like a creature of the sea…his body gracefully bending and moving as one muscle, with arms and legs joined to create a single form rather than his limbs flailing. 

The story is strong when it focuses on the bond between these two friends.  It weakens a bit under the strain of an obligatory love angle, provided by an American woman, Johanna (Arquette).  Johanna becomes attracted to Jacques’ strange innocence, and his love for the sea that he can’t explain nor can she hope to understand.  If anything, their romance serves to further prove that Jacques really is a creature of the sea and not of the land.

This passion, or even obsession, if you will, keeps both Johanna and Enzo at a slight distance.  Enzo cannot see the water as Jacques does…he only sees it as a source of competition.  Even we, the viewers, can’t quite comprehend what makes Jacques the way he is…we just simply accept that it’s in his blood.  Not even witnessing his father’s drowning death during a diving accident in his childhood was able to drive that spirit out of him.

Without giving too much away, there is finally a moment of breakthrough for the two divers and their friendship, which is beautifully written and played, and powerfully emotional.  Enzo is finally able to see the underwater world through his friend’s eyes.  It brings a change over him, and oddly affirms the film’s romanticizing of the sea in a way that we can accept, even if we don’t fully understand.

I’ve loved this film for a long time, and thanks to DVD, this marks my first chance to see the film as it was intended:  with the 49 minutes cut for American release finally restored, in widescreen, and with the original Eric Serra score, which had been replaced by a more conventional Bill Conti one here in the States.  There’s no question this version is right:  the pace, though always relaxed, is never boring, the characters are explored more fully, and the original score is an incredible piece of music that compliments the film perfectly.

But the film’s major attraction is the beautiful underwater photography.  Besson has captured the sea in a unique, poetic way that gives it a different feeling and atmosphere than any National Geographic type film could do.  He doesn’t always strive for realism; instead, he naturally connects with the many contrasts of the sea:  how it is both peaceful and frightening, both real and surreal, both beautiful and deadly.  Shot after shot is expertly constructed, lit, and photographed for maximum effect.  Sunlit and moonlit waters are captured equally well, each giving the waters its own sense of personality.  It is no secret that Besson loves the waters, and this film is like his love letter to them.

There have been plenty of moviegoers, however, that have found the film lacking.  It has been criticized for being too long and a bit melodramatic.  Some have said the core story was too simple to support the epic approach to the film.  I can understand the complaints…this movie isn’t for everybody.  But ultimately, I find Besson’s passion for his story, his characters, and his cinematic world to completely winning, and I’m always ready to place my trust in his hands and follow him for the duration of his wondrous vision.

Video ***1/2

I had kept my fingers crossed that the image on this DVD would be spectacular, and as usual, Columbia Tri Star didn’t disappoint.  This is a beautifully made anamorphic transfer that serves the spectacular photography well.  The colors are gorgeous, well contained, and bright throughout, and images are always clear and well defined, never becoming murky or hazy even in darker underwater shots.  I only noticed a bit of grain and softness in one or two nighttime shots on land, but never in the water, which is what I most hoped for, and received.  The ocean has rarely looked as beautiful as it does on this disc…indeed, it’s bigger and bluer than ever!  I would happily play any of the diving scenes to demonstrate DVD quality video for my friends.

Audio ***

The best aspect of the soundtrack is the score by Eric Serra, which I had not had the privilege of hearing before, but now applaud it as one of the best, most beautiful, and most appropriate scores I’ve heard for a film.  The 5.1 mix is mostly used to serve that music, which is plentiful throughout.  The orchestration gets a nice bit of opening up across all channels, front and rear, for a pleasant, ambient listening experience.  As for the rest of the sound, rear channels are often only accessed for background sounds, i.e., bird noises and water lapping, while most of the film’s dialogue and other sources of sound are inherent in the front stage, but with a good, clean, and lively spread.  The .1 channel isn’t used much at all, but is not really missed in a film with no explosions or gunfire.  As said, the music is the key, and this is one pleasant listening experience.

Features **1/2

The disc contains three trailers, a track with the musical score isolated, talent files, and a photo gallery for the international ad campaign, which consists solely of 3 foreign movie posters.

Summary:

The Big Blue is one of my favorite friendship pictures, one that subtly and realistically explores the ties that bind and the differences that separate, against the background of a lovingly captured living sea.  It creates characters that are not always easy to understand, but easy to accept and appreciate despite their complexities.  I consider it Luc Besson’s masterpiece, and if you’re as big a fan of this film as I am, get ready to enjoy it at home better than ever before, in a restored director’s cut on a top-quality DVD.