Back in 1965, Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) was a boy living on the coast of Greece with his father, who dived for shellfish, his American mother having long left for her home country. It was at this time that two events happened that would shape his life: he met Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno) who became his great rival and more importantly his great friend, and his father died while out fishing when the pump that provided him with oxygen failed. That Jacques was tending to the pump on the boat did not make this death any easier to bear, and it has haunted him these twenty-odd years since though has not dampened his enthusiasm for the ocean...
The most successful French movie of the eighties, The Big Blue (or Le Grand Bleu if you spoke French) is one of those films where you go along with its fanciful but still grounded in reality plot, or simply throw up your hands and judge the whole enterprise to be hopelessly daft. Funnily enough it is loosely based on a true story, but as we have to accept the two male protagonists would have been happier with gills, or at least have been born as dolphins, then the suspension of disbelief is too much for many to take. Indeed, most of the reviews outside France tended towards the view that this was ridiculous and, that dreaded word, pretentious.
Which to a certain extent it is, but its overwhelming sincerity actually worked in its favour, and there are many fans who find the story, with its ups and downs and beautiful appearance, entirely captivating. After an introduction to set up the Jacques and Enzo characters, the third part of this triangle is presented to us: Johana (Rosanna Arquette), who funnily enough is not the woman who comes between them. In fact, it is the sea, and Enzo, who come between Jacques and Johana after a romance develops when Jacques is salvaging in Peru and insurance investigator Johana goes to, well, investigate.
She is always more interested in him than he is in her, not that their relationship is completely one-sided, but after a while you wonder why Johana is bothering with a man who pretty much wants to be a dolphin to the exclusion of all else. Therefore the slightly dippy girlfriend gets a taste of a life of profundity, finds she likes it, and spends the rest of the film in a futile attempt to matter more to her great love than a big expanse of water. The sport that brings all this to the surface is free-diving, which Jacques and Enzo compete in, each bettering the other's depths across the course of the running time until the ocean decides to mark out its own winner near the end. The water is as much a personality as the people, and in the case of Jacques, may have the advantage of him there.
Still, if director Luc Besson knows anything about filmmaking, he knows his way around a striking image, so The Big Blue is a feast for the eyes even if its heartstring tugging is not quite as successful. And if Besson knows anything else, it's how to make the best of Jean Reno, offering him one of his best roles: it's a pleasure to watch him on the screen, being funny, arrogant and touching often all in the same scene, a terrific performance that you might be wishing was the focus instead of Jacques. Although the script conjures up reasons for the hero to stay away from the sea, we're never convinced that landlubber Johana will ever be much of a substitute, pregnant though she is. Jacques is so vague that if you were not under the spell of the azure skies and water you might be tempted to reach into the screen and give him a shake: Rosanna Arquette in her eighties prime is better than a dolphin, man! There's no telling some people. Music by Eric Serra.
[Optimum have released a collection of Besson's films in the Blu-ray format, The Big Blue being one of them, which includes a featurette, the trailer and both the short and long versions of the film.]