Thursday, 21 April 2011

Luc Besson's debut: Le dernier combat

French director Luc Besson famously swore he would only direct 10 films but The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec - based on the comic books by Jacques Tardi and due out in the UK tomorrow - will be his thirteenth, with at least two more in the pipeline. (He's also writer-producer on the Taxi and Transporter series.)

Many of the tropes familiar from his movies were already in place for 1983's Le dernier combat (The Last Battle), his remarkably assured, near silent, first feature. Its opening shot is of a man shagging a blow-up doll, which slowly deflates: it establishes the search for (heterosexual) sex in a vogueish, post-apocalyptic, black-and-white world by the character, played by co-writer Pierre Jolivet, who also co-scripted Besson's follow up, Subway (1985).

For his first films Besson kept quite a team around him: cinematographer Carlo Varini shot Le dernier combat, Subway and The Big Blue (1988), while editor Sophie Schmit worked on the first two. A couple of Besson regulars share the screen: ageing character actor Jean Bouise (Subway, The Big Blue) and Jean Reno, cast in the slow-brute role that would become familiar to him in Subway, The Big Blue and, most successfully, Leon (1994). There are echoes, too, of the penchant for slapstick humour rife in those movies - the dumb show and prat fall being particular favourites - and a reflexive reaction shot used for comedy.

Besson's sense for visual setpieces is immediate - despite budget restrictions, some flying sequences reflect the visceral pleasure the director clearly feels when diving in The Big Blue. Soundtrack regular Eric Serra is already in place (there's a gag with a screwed up tape here reprised in Subway's opening chase), pleasingly experimental at rare moments, otherwise pure lounge.

As a young teenager, Subway was one of the first films to open up the possibilities of cinema to me, and when I was a student in Paris I caught a repertoire screening of Le dernier combat in a cinema off the Champs-Elysées and sought out different versions of The Big Blue, including a giant projection at Le Grand Rex and one with scenes I'm sure have still not been included on any DVD edit I've seen. I haven't seen any of his films since The Fifth Element in 1997, a run that includes Joan of Arc (1999) and Angel-A (2005); forthcoming feature The Lady, about Aung Saan Suu Kyi, sounds simply alarming.

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