The united colours of Besson
Luc Besson discusses humanity, utopia and his latest film, ‘Valerian’
Luc Besson’s previous film wasn’t short on ambition. Having sent Scarlett Johansson on a journey beyond the very reaches of time and space, as he did in 2014’s Lucy, where could the French pop stylist possibly go from there? For writer–director Besson, the answer was simple: a near $200 million dollar independently produced sci-fi utopia that stands as the career-long realisation of his nuttiest childhood imaginings. Based on the Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières comic series that captured the ten-year-old Besson’s imagination, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (now showing nationally) rides shotgun with two “spatio-temporal” agents (Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline) as they investigate an attack on a peaceful planet and embark upon a gaudy digital adventure that is by turns inspired and unruly.
At a time when American studios have long ceased dreaming up loopy high-concept spectacle, Valerian is a wild-eyed explosion of colour amid the banalities of franchise brand extension. Besson loves tangents and funky cul-de-sacs; an entire act of the film is dedicated to a narrative digression involving cannibalistic alien fashionistas, with Ethan Hawke inexplicably cosplaying as Zoo TV–era Bono, and Rihanna as a Shakespearean-trained alien shapeshifter who morphs into a rainbow of male-gaze fantasies. It’s Star Wars remade via Google Translate, Mœbius moulded to an anti-colonialist pop extravaganza, with Besson’s trademark blend of cheeseball humour and visionary excess writ large in every frame.
Besson, 58, materialised in Sydney recently for a lightning Valerian press day, with a suspicious absence of jet lag that suggested he’d been chilling in some rich guy chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Wrapped in a black hoodie and topped with the blond highlights of an ageing ’90s Eurodance act, the cinema du look stylist speaks cheerfully of his relationship to his inner Luc (“He’s a good kid”), who’d first set eyes upon comics when his sci-fi-loving father introduced him to them in the late 1960s. (The film is dedicated to Besson snr, who died during its pre-production.)
Set in the 28th century, Valerian is a utopian vision in which hundreds of different species inhabit a technologically advanced universe in sync with the natural world, where a possibly gender-fluid race holds an organic key to great power. “They are the representation of who we should be after 20-plus centuries of knowledge,” Besson remarks. This paradise is disrupted by a sadly familiar villain, however – the death rattle of rapacious white men ravaging the natural landscape. “Why do we have to destroy the best of us?” Besson wonders. “For money? For stupidity, politics, economics?” Like his film, Besson has a big heart, and paints in similarly broad, sincere strokes. “We always find a reason to fight the other,” the filmmaker explains. “‘Oh, you don’t have the same color. You don’t have the same age. You don’t have the same religion. You’re a woman.’ We always try to put a difference or a distance between us. But everybody knows that difference is a richness. It’s not even a question.”
These united colours of Besson have always been one of the most endearing aspects of his films. Jazz icon and UNESCO ambassador Herbie Hancock was attracted to Valerian for its inclusive global vision. “We’re in the 28th century,” says Besson. “There are 8000 different types of aliens living with us. So the people from Earth, they’re brothers – they don’t care about if you’re black or Muslim. I try to show in the film that it’s not so difficult to live with our differences.”
And while the candy-coloured Valerian stands in stark contrast to its Hollywood contemporaries, Besson is quick to stress that the distinction is not merely aesthetic; it’s political. “All these big sci-fi films exist to show the power of America,” he says of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster and, in particular, the superhero genre. “They show how they are the only one who can save the Earth, that the enemy is the foreign guy, who is an alien, and how we need to be protected from the foreign guy. It’s so obvious, it’s almost like a written propaganda.” But it is not all antipathy for Hollywood; as for so many of his compatriots, Besson has a love-hate romance with American cinema.
More than three decades earlier, a very different vision of the future informed Besson’s 1983 debut feature, Le Dernier Combat. Screened recently as part of a sci-fi retrospective at the Melbourne International Film Festival, it is minimal and dystopian whereas Valerian is maximal and utopian. The film is set in a bombed-out post-apocalyptic landscape in which men – and they’re nearly all men – squabble and scavenge among the grotty debris of a consumerist society reduced to rubble by war. Language has been retarded or lost completely: the film is black and white, primal and silent, save for the clang of props and Éric Serra’s wonderfully uncool score. Unlike Valerian, or the fabulously off-kilter realms of Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), it doesn’t seem like a nice place to live at all.
“I was pretty pessimistic,” Besson says, recalling his Cold War adolescence that set the tone for Combat’s bleak prognosis. “I was watching TV when I was 16 and then suddenly the commentator would say, ‘We have now enough nuclear power to explode the earth 80 times.’ Not only one, 80. And you’re 16!” He laughs. “You say, ‘What the fuck is wrong with the adults? Why are they leaving me in a planet that I know now that any minute can be blown away by stupidity?’”
Le Dernier Combat posits a terrifyingly hostile world, populated by dangerous and inarticulate men. The film’s lone female – trapped in an abandoned building and violently fought over by the lecherous, duelling vagrants – acts as the narrative fulcrum, already suggesting Besson’s unusual ability to mix “kickass girl” clichés and an almost accidentally progressive femininity. His films’ heroes have been numerous, but it is his girls – Mathilda, Nikita, Leeloo, Lucy – who have consistently been his most memorable.
Indeed, back in late ’60s Paris, it was the female character that appealed to the young Besson as he poured over the Valérian and Laureline comics. DeHaan’s callow hot shot may get top billing in the film version, but make no mistake – it’s Laureline, driven by Delevingne’s spirited performance, who functions as the movie’s real hero. “You know what, it’s the reflection of the society today,” Besson says of the film’s relationship dynamic. “Men are overpaid and overrated most of the time.” In a film teeming with ornate computer-generated civilisations, pan-dimensional virtual reality jaunts and convoluted plots to save pastel space-pearl paradises, sometimes these quotidian observations can feel just as dazzling.
I wonder if little Luc is happy with what he sees on the screen, after a lifetime of envisioning. “I don’t know if he’s happy with me,” Besson laughs, “but he’s happy with the film. The child is the father of the man.”