Opening this week is French director Luc Besson’s latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The $180 million dollar sci-fi epic is both the highest budgeted independent and French film of all-time. While the title is unfamiliar to the casual movie goer in North America, the film is actually based off of a 50 year old French comic book. On the surface, it would seem strange for Besson to follow up his previous film, the international Scarlett Johansson hit Lucy, with a sci-fi film, but this kind of genre hopping has been a staple of Luc Besson’s career.
While his filmography is incredibly diverse in genre, they’re all distinctly his films. Likewise, his diversity of projects doesn’t seem to stem from a being a journeyman director wandering from gig to gig. He seems to be equally passionate about action movies as he is sci-fi epics, and as he is children’s movies.
Besson directed his first film before he was 25 years old in the early 80s. Over the next few years, he directed several more films, but it wasn’t until 1990’s La Femme Nikita (or Nikita) that he made huge international waves. The story of a female inmate turned assassin wasn’t just a big hit, it was also hugely influential. Within a few years of the film’s release, it had been remade in Hong Kong under the title Black Cat and in the United States as Point of No Return. Within the decade, the story had been converted into a Canadian TV series of the same name and then, in 2010, the film was adapted for television again by the CW network.
A few years later, he followed the film with a “spiritual sequel” called The Professional or Leon. The film featured Jean Reno playing a character with many similarities to a character he played in La Femme Nikita. The film also featured Gary Oldman as the main villain, and Natalie Portman in her debut performance. The film was again well received by critics, and a hit.
At this point in time, Besson had established himself as a leading action director, but instead of following up The Professional with another grounded action film, he decided to direct a sci-fi epic he’d been imagining since he was 15 years old. At the time, the film was both the most expensive French film ever produced, and the highest grossing French film of all-time: The Fifth Element.
His follow up film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, was yet another genre leap but, this time around, the film was far less successful with critics and audiences. While not an utter bomb, the film was certainly a significant disappointment.
Starting around the turn of the century, Besson became associated with a long string of high concept action vehicles which he wrote/co-wrote and produced. Movies such as Kiss the Dragon, The Transporter, and Taken were all written and produced by Besson. At the same time, he was still directing films, including a trilogy of family films about a character named Arthur. In 2011, he released a biographical film starring Michelle Yeoh called The Lady and, a couple of years later, a crime-comedy starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeifer called The Family.
If you’re noticing a pattern in his career, it’s that there is no pattern. He makes the movies he wants to make.
Now for the second time, he’s made the most expensive French film of all-time. Besson grew up reading the Valerian comic books but, for years, didn’t think it was possible to translate the stories to film; That was until he saw what James Cameron was able to deliver with Avatar.
The film feels like the culmination of a 35-year film career. Without the clout of years of successful filmmaking, it’s unlikely he would have been able to raise the funds for such an ambitious project. Now, time will tell how the film is received by audiences around the world.