Lucy: does Luc Besson need reining in?

I saw Lucy recently – the latest offering from writer-director-producer Luc Besson – in a completely packed cinema. (It was the opening weekend.) What a full cinema indicates at this point is nothing in itself, but I’ll explain more shortly.

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Now I’ve been looking forward to this film for quite some time. I like Besson. Leon is a fantastic film which launched Natalie Portman’s career, The Fifth Element is a lot of fun and gave us the wonderful character Leeloo, Taken reinvigorated Liam Neeson’s career as an aging (and unlikely) action hero, The Transporter franchise turned Jason Statham into an action hero, and so on.

So… Besson has a good track record. In actual fact he’s pretty prolific as a filmmaker: as a writer (56 credits), producer (116 credits) and director (21 credits). That’s some output for a guy in his mid 50s. He’s known for a visually rich style and Wikipedia goes so far as to provide a quote which says Besson is the ‘John Hughes of action movies’. Now for those not in the know, John Hughes pretty much invented the coming-of-age teen movie in the 80s – so this is high praise.

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Having said that, action is an easily criticised genre of film, often said to opt for style over substance. Besson in particular gets this comment directed at him by critics. Some might say he’s the French Michael Bay, but maybe that’s going too far. Either way, this brings me full circle to his latest offering, Lucy. Some of Besson’s best work has focused on strong female characters (and actresses) and, in Scarlett Johansson, he may have found his best muse yet.

The film starts with her character Lucy, a bit of an airhead bimbo, living in Taipei. She gets duped into delivering a briefcase into the hands of a gangster, who then forces her to act as a drug mule by sewing said drugs into her stomach. They find their way into her system slowly unlocking the full capacity of her brain. From there things go awry in the typical way you might expect from an action movie.

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Yet… this feels slightly different.

Rather than the usual action fare where our protagonist’s motives are fairly standard (revenge, redemption, saving loved ones etc), this aims to ask some big questions about the nature of our existence and evolution. Indeed, the film is book-ended by Lucy saying that we were given the gift of life thousands of years ago, and what have we done with it?

Have we really evolved all that much? Are we still animals at heart? What would happen if we could unlock our brain’s true potential? The catalyst, in this case, are the drugs that Lucy ingests, pushing her brain – and the film – into uncharted territory, from action to sci-fi, as her abilities begin to develop to superhero (or superhuman?) levels.

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The more Lucy taps into these abilities the less human she becomes. Her humanity leaves her as she becomes cold, calculating and clear in the path she must take. In this respect Scarlett was the perfect choice for Lucy. She’s had a number of roles throughout her career that explore a sense of loneliness, disconnection and what it means to be human (think Lost in Translation and, more recently, Her and Under the Skin). And she can look almost alien at times; that delicate, doll-like face piercing you with an intelligent and searching gaze, one which demands an immediate response.

But despite her compelling performance and despite Besson aiming to ask some big questions, a lot of what you’ll find in this film is nothing new. It borrows heavily from countless other films. For example, as Lucy’s mental capacity increases from the standard 10% that most of us access, the film is divided into chapters to mark where she is on her journey: 20%, 40% and so on. This put me in mind of Tarantino, the master of the chapter format. Yes Besson makes it work here and it’s a nice touch, but it almost took me out the film because this method, arguably, is so closely linked to Tarantino.

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Besson also cuts the film, particularly in the opening scenes and a montage near the end, with animal procreation and birth scenes which felt, quite frankly, odd and rather jarring. Had the film reel got mixed up with a David Attenborough documentary? Or perhaps with Aronofsky’s take on the theory of creation in his recent film Noah? Either way, he laid the evolution angle on thick.

It’s said by some critics that a good barometer of a film is often audience reaction and, on an opening weekend in a packed cinema sitting near the back, this was fairly easy for me to judge. There were precious little laughs, no gasps, starts, or even much movement. Mostly, from what I could see at any rate, people were sitting there focusing. Taking the tale in, processing it, following the plot. Not immersed, not disinterested. Perhaps more curious than anything else. This could have been the response Besson was going for: as Lucy loses her humanity she looks at the world in a curious way. In this respect he may have wanted the audience to observe the film in the same manner.

Film Title: Lucy

A hugely safe bet as to what cinemagoers said leaving the cinema, in my mind, would have been, ‘Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting.’ Now whether you’re familiar with Besson’s work or not, you’ll have no doubt seen the trailer and expect to see Scarlett Johansson acquire some powers and kick ass. She does do this to a degree, but not in the way you might expect and perhaps not in the way you might like either.

Tonally too, the film is rather odd in places. The reactions that Besson has aimed to elicit from his actors just seemed confusing at times, as if they were unsure on his direction. Or maybe Besson kept using takes that were intended for the cutting room floor?

Perhaps, referring to the title of this blog finally, Besson has got to the point where, a bit like some of his American counterparts, he is simply too powerful. He writes his own films, directs them, produces them, and pretty much does what he wants.

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That’s not to say Lucy is a turkey by any means. There’s good stuff there. It’s a great premise with some smart dialogue in places, Scarlett was brilliantly cast and there were some solid action scenes. Yet, as an entire film, something doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t hang right. It’s uneven in tone and felt rushed in places where Besson should have taken his time and overindulged in areas that could have been skimmed over.

I suspect, though, that this will be a bit of a marmite film. Ultimately, you’ll have to judge it for yourself. It will no doubt make a lot of money – there’s rumour Universal have already approached Besson to do a sequel – yet, critically and from a story and character point of view, it probably doesn’t warrant one.

But go see for yourself. I might have to have a second viewing myself. It seems the kind of film that needs another one to let your mind fully settle on the story.

Natalie Portman’s top 5 performances

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natalie portmanThis piece slightly follows on from my recent post on how Hayden Christensen ruined Star Wars. After writing I began to think about the other actors in those films, particularly Natalie Portman and how highly I rate her work.

Other than Leon in 1994, her first major role as an adult actress was Star Wars. She was cast in 1997 – just 3 years after Leon – with the first film out in 1999. That said, I didn’t really become a fan until 2004 and her indie phase.

Her appeal for me is that – in terms of actresses that combine brains and beauty and mix up Hollywood blockbusters with cool, little indie films – she’s one of the best. Let’s look at what I consider to be her best performances.

  1. Black Swan (2010)
    This obviously has to make the top spot. Portman won an Academy award as Best Actress for her role as Nina – perhaps drawing on earlier experience playing characters in Closer and V for Vendetta – she gave a mesmerising, unsettling and yet captivating performance which firmly pushed her into the A list.
  2. natalie portmanLeon (1994)
    What can we say about her performance in this one? Holding her own against big names; Jean Reno, Gary Oldman etc. Without her performance here we may never have had Hanna – a super cool film with Saoirse Ronan. Also, Gareth Evans – Director of critically-acclaimed film The Raid – cited Leon as a major influence.
  3. Garden State (2004)
    I loved her in this – so sweet and vulnerable, yet bubbly and optimistic. A perfect contrast to Zach Braff’s dour character. It’s roles like this that cemented her in my mind as one of my favourite actresses. The ultimate girl-next-door who listens to The Shins and makes you love life!
  4. natalie portmanV for Vendetta (2005)
    She got a hard time for her accent in this – swinging from super posh to cor blimey Dick Van Dyke. However she gave the character – Evey – a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. Plus how many actresses do you know that would shave their head for a role and end up looking more beautiful?
  5. Closer (2004)
    Released the same year as Garden State and a brave breakaway from her relatively wooden turn in Star Wars (I blame Lucas, he’s known for giving actors little direction or getting much out of them). Here she uses her brilliant mix of vulnerability and sexuality to full effect – although the scene where Jude Law’s character breaks up with her is heartbreaking – how could he? It’s like kicking a puppy, she’s so lovely.

So there’s my list, what do you think? Any missing that you feel should have made the cut?

What’s next for our Natalie?
In terms of future projects, she’s in Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups which is in pre-production. Although he’s known for editing out big actors, so who knows if she’ll appear much in the finished film. Let’s hope so. She currently filming Thor: The Dark World, plus a few rumoured films for 2014.

I’ll leave you with her audition tape from Leon. Worth watching more than once, there’s subtle expressions she gives you might miss first time round. She displays a sharp wit, sassy nature, intelligence and maturity – no wonder she got the part.