Luc Besson’s sun kissed, languid ocean odyssey about free diving finally hits UK BD. Matt Shingleton examines the third film in Optimum’s Luc Besson Collection
An intense labour of love for Luc Besson, The Big Blue draws upon his own aquatic upbringing by parents who were scuba diving instructors. Throughout his formative years his dream was to become a maritime biologist, but a diving accident when he was 17 forced him to contemplate a career on dry land. There are obvious parallels here with the main protagonist of Subway, who dreamt of being a singer but damaged his vocal chords in a car accident. In The Big Blue Besson draws parallels between his own childhood and the life of former Free Diving world champion Jacques Mayol, taking a loosely autobiographical approach to fictionalise the competitive rivalry between Mayol and fellow diving champion: Enzo Maiorca. The film follows two unlikely friends Jacques and Enzo, whose bond is forged through the love of diving that both developed during their childhood in Greece. They eventually become estranged when Jacques leaves town after his father dies in a diving accident, but when Enzo becomes the world diving champion he seeks out his former friend and only real competition. As Jacques and Enzo reignite their rivalry and compete in various free diving competitions, Jacques becomes involved with an American insurance agent named Joanne, who has given up everything in pursuit of love.
The Big Blue was going to be the film that would crack the US market and make Besson a global superstar. It did make him a global name, just not in America, where audiences were treated to a cut, re-edited, re-scored version. It’s hard to say if this was the sole reason The Big Blue failed in the states, as to this day the film continues to split audience opinion. I can understand why it alienates certain viewers, it is after all a near 3-hour sports film/character study where the sport in question involves people swimming directly down, then floating directly up, with no real insight into this highly technical process given beyond the fact that you need to hold your breath for a really long time. The central role of Jacques is also a bit of a head scratcher, he spends his time travelling from gorgeous location to gorgeous location, winning competitions and boinking Roseanna Arquette, but he’d rather be swimming alone in the ocean with dolphins. The very nature of The Big Blue goes against the American and British way of thinking, it’s about the isolation caused by a burning desire for liberation, to cast off all responsibilities and earthly ties and become one with the infinite, regardless of what responsibilities bind you.
Despite being able to understand the criticism this film inspires, I don’t completely agree with it, because beyond all its ponderousness, wafer thin narrative and languid pacing, there’s also Jean Reno chewing up the scenery as the endlessly entertaining character Enzo, who brings warmth and humour and personality to every single scene he’s in. There are those beautiful Mediterranean locations that are captured so colourfully by Carlo Varini’s sumptuous cinematography that the film looks like a cartoon masquerading as live action, one which is perfectly accompanied by Eric Serra’s dreamy score. Besson’s obsession with dolphins brings its own wondrous element in the form of numerous underwater sequences where Jacques communes and dances with the graceful creatures, and the milky blue depths of the free diving sequences are extremely serene. The Big Blue never fails to whisk me away to a more glamorous world and evoke a feel-good sense of peace and wonder whenever I watch it. That quality makes it a precious commodity within Besson’s oeuvré.
The Disc: The Big Blue needs a good transfer to do its splendiferous visuals justice, and I’d say this 2.35:1 presentation just about manages to do that. The colour scheme is suitably saturated, bringing to life the deep blue of the sky and ocean while skin tones are colourful without appearing unnatural; there’s a little colour bleeding on occasion, but it’s not blatant. In general the film has a delicately textured, filmlike look with a light and soft layer of grain that deepens to a moderate or thick (but still soft) layer depending on how dark each scene is. As with the other Blu-rays in this Besson Collection the contrast and brightness appear high, with blooming whites and crushed blacks, but there’s a lot of sunlight in this film so it’s hard to say how much of this stems from the cinematography. Image clarity is pretty solid, The Big Blue exhibits that slightly softish look of an 80s film, but fine detail is solid enough without there being too many instances of noticeable edge enhancement – nor is there any obvious noise reduction in play.
There are two versions of The Big Blue crammed onto this BD-50 disc, the 168-minute extended “Version Longue” edit and a 137 Theatrical Cut (although the IMDB lists the theatrical runtime as 132-minutes, so maybe this is a slightly extended version), so the AVC encode has an understandably low average bitrate of 16.41Mbps and 18.77Mbps for the extended and theatrical versions respectively. Sure enough this means the transfers come with compression artefacts in the form of mild blocking and banding, and poorly defined grain, but it’s not too bad considering the sheer amount of HD video on the disc. There’s little to no difference in quality between the two transfers, there’s a slight difference in framing where the Theatrical Cut may show a couple more pixels of information at the top of the frame and a couple of pixels less at the bottom of the frame compared to the Version Longue, but you can apply my comments above on the transfer of the Version Longue edit to the transfer of the Theatrical Cut.
Sadly audio options amount to a French LPCM track which is of course the French dub of the film. For those unfamiliar with this film’s history, it was recorded and performed in English mostly with some Italian and French dialogue on the side. A French dub was then made which dubbed most of the English and Italian dialogue into French and only kept the English for the scenes that follow Joanna in New York. There’s an argument for the validity of either language as Besson’s intended option, but the fact that Optimum have not included the English track on this Blu-ray severely compromises this release and renders the audio section of this review null and void, because the original audio is not present on this disc. Hence I will be scoring the audio as a big fat 0/10. I sympathise with Optimum in the sense that they were probably only given French masters, but someone in the company should have been paying attention and demanded an English master as well. Maybe it’s just me on this one, but I find it completely unacceptable to release a predominantly English language film in the UK without an English track.
If you can forget about the existence of an English track then this French LPCM 2.0 track offers a rather pleasing audio presentation. In comparison to the previous Besson films in this collection the audio sounds more refined whilst maintaining a remastered smoothness with little in the way of hiss. Bass is held back a little and sounds a little soft, but it’s deep enough to drive this understated drama, likewise treble response could be better defined but remains smooth enough. The soundstage is a little restricted and doesn’t really convey the enveloping nature of the ocean sequences that overtly, but by and large this is a pretty decent 2.0 presentation that does incorporate the surrounds for both ambience and to boost the score. Audio dynamics are strong, but obviously the looped French dialogue tends to sound too high in the mix and throws the balance off a little. The most jarring nature of the French dub is the fact that it can often jump from the actor’s original recorded English delivery to a French dialogue dub, then back again to the original recorded English, over and over again in the same scene. This is particularly jarring in Rosanna Arquette’s case, who doesn’t sound like she recorded her own French dialogue. The theatrical cut comes with a solo French Dolby Digital 2.0 option, which appears to be mislabelled as English on the disc. In comparison to the LPCM track it sounds noticeably louder and has deeper and much fuzzier bass and looser treble response.
In the Extras department Optimum have included the 1989 documentary on the making of The Big Blue: L’aventure du Grand Bleu, which is certainly a big selling point for this release. The Big Blue is full of sequences where you ask yourself “how did they do that?” and was a particularly demanding shoot for Jean Reno and Jean-Marc Barr because they actually performed all their own diving sequences. This feature is essentially a video diary of the film’s production that presents candid behind the scenes footage with narration by either Besson, Reno, or Barr depending on which sequence we see being filmed. It’s an excellent making of that also doubles up as a marine documentary, as Reno and Barr talk us through their aquatic adventures when filming the free diving and dolphin sequences. Also included are a French Teaser and US Trailer, both in standard definition.
Please Note: The review disc sent to DVDTimes was mislabelled as Léon: The Professional on the disc itself (the data directory itself, not the physical cover of the disc)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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