I have a huge film-crush on Luc Besson, but even I was skeptical of The Big Blue.  A two-plus hour movie chronicling the competiton between two free divers?  Free diving being swimming down into the water as deep as one can go, without any supporting apparatus, like an oxygen tank.  As expected, it was one of my least favorite Luc Besson movies, but it was actually surprisingly gripping.

Jean-Marc Barr stars as a childlike restless soul with a troubled heart.  Brought up in a seaside community, his father dies in a diving accident, but that only drives Barr to master the water.  He works both as a subject in science experiments, holding his breath underwater in arctic climates, as well as a wrangling dolphins.  (Like Jessica Alba in Good Luck Chuck!).  Jean Reno is the gregarious diver who holds the free diving record.  And yet, he knows he won’t be satisfied until he’s the best, meaning beating Barr, his childhood friend (or acquaintance, at least).  Barr accepts, and the two compete at a series of free diving events, their dives getting deeper and deeper, thus becoming more and more dangerous.  Rosanna Arquette falls for Barr at first sight, and leaves her entire life behind on the chance he reciprocates.

The movie is sparse.  Which is a term I probably use too liberally.  Here I mean that events don’t necessarily drive the movie.  Besson co-wrote the screenplay, based off of his story which mimicks two real life divers, with Robert Garland (who has The Bob Newhart Show, Sanford and Son, and uncredited work on Tootsie and the Twilight Zone movie on his resume), Marilyn Goldin, Jacques Mayol (one of the real life divers), and Marc Perrier.  I must admit a bias against underwater scenes.  I can’t explain why, but I just rarely enjoy them.  Most of my least favorite Bond scenes are the underwater ones.  In any case, that obviously negatively affected my thoughts on the film. But while the film isn’t empty, it just feels like there should be more there.  Or maybe it is more that I felt there was more to explore in the story, and the events depicted seemed more forced than I expected.

The characters are all genuinely interesting.  And yet, considering the length of the movie and relatively lack of action, they really aren’t fleshed out as much as I would have liked.  Which isn’t to say the characters are caricatures, they most certainly are not.  Arquette, for example, isn’t just a wet blanket and isn’t just hopelessly in love.  Besson’s characters generally do have a defining characteristic, but almost universally have shading to their personalities.

Jean Reno is a man.  A hoss.  Seriously, he’s great.  In everything.  Here, where many other actors would have made his character a little hokey, Reno turns the boastful playboy who is still a momma’s boy into something larger than life.  Even though her character at times felt like she belonged in a different movie, I was pretty OK with Rosanna Arquette here.  She may not have totally risen to the challenge, but she’s definitely more than just arm candy.  Even if she is looking rather attractive.  Jean-Marc Barr, well, I’m sure the ladies love him.  Actually, that’s not fair.  He does acquit himself well.  In many ways, though, the character was like Rocky in Rocky Horror.

It is hard to argue with the path of the movie.  I may not have always agreed with the way the story was told, but I did find it engrossing.  Reno and Barr have a relationship that is never filled with animosity, but even at its strongest, still driven by their competition.  And even as Reno mentors Barr in the ways of life, he can never quite best him.  Similarly, Arquette and Barr’s relationship isn’t complex, per se, but as The Looking Glass would tell you, it isn’t easy to get between a man and the water.  The ending is…wow.  In some ways discordant with the rest of the movie, it is hauntingly jarring, beautiful, and powerful.  I wish the rest of the movie had adequately built up to the ending.

The movie apparently did really well in France, but flopped in this country.  Which is fair.  And not particularly a judgment on audiences in either country, the film’s sensibilities are more in line with those of the French, I’d imagine.  I believe it was a very personal production for Besson, so I certainly can’t begrudge him the inconsistencies in the movie, or that it doesn’t quite hold up to his very high standards.