The trouble with making noble pronouncements is that you have to stick to them. Since the late 1990s, Luc Besson has always maintained that he will only ever direct 10 films. Directors have often, he says, made five or six great movies then gone off the boil.
"My legacy is more important to me than short-term profit," he argues. "It's very important for me at the end of the day to watch my 10 films and be proud of them." While, for Besson's detractors, the conclusion to a career that stretches back over 23 years couldn't come soon enough, he's not directed a film since 1999's much-maligned epic Joan of Arc. But, finally, the man who compares his films to "bullets" is down to his last two shots.
At the end of the month arrives Angel-A, a brisk, 85-minute two-hander made during a hiatus on the project that has occupied him for the past five years, Arthur and the Minimoys. Due this Christmas, this big-budget fantasy film, based on his own novel, will see Besson bid a spectacular au revoir to film-making. Or will it?
"To tell you the truth, Arthur has three instalments," Besson says, squirming a little. "Each one is two hours long." Next he'll be claiming his 1991 deep blue sea exploration, Atlantis, was a documentary and therefore doesn't count. "Now why not make the eleventh one?" he adds. "I don't know."
We are sitting in a downstairs meeting room of Besson's tranquil villa overlooking the French Riviera. The last time I was here was in 2001 for Kiss of the Dragon, a Jet Li film that Besson co-scripted and produced for his highly successful company Europa. Even then, with his big belly and bleached blond hair, he looked like a man past his prime. And yet, if he exudes a lethargic air of a man rather bored by it all, the fact he has produced, or executive produced, 54 films in the past five years tells a different story. Most are undemanding B-movies. Yet, judged by their high profit margins, Besson has always understood what the public wants. "You've had a tough day and you just want to see an easy film," he says, with a shrug.
Much the same could be said for his own directorial efforts; revered by audiences and reviled by critics, films such as 1997's sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element, have gained Besson the reputation as a director who values style over substance. It's no doubt why he's respected in Hollywood - his 1990 film Nikita was remade as The Assassin with Bridget Fonda - although he's never worked for a studio.
The closest he came was shooting his 1994 hitman movie, Leon, in New York for five weeks. "I am perfectly happy to work with the Americans, but I don't want to work for the Americans," he states. "It's a question of expression. We are the witnesses of our cultures. This is our treasure - our history, our culture, and I'm very sensitive about that. Basically, I don't want to see [Sofia Coppola's forthcoming] Marie-Antoinette with some hard rock on it made by some brat from New York. No, I want to see a French guy making it."
While his point has its merits, I get the impression that Besson is being hypocritical. Most of his films have nothing to do with France whatsoever; and the one that did, Joan of Arc, found it impossible to dramatise most of its scenes without causing undue hilarity. One Canadian newspaper dubbed it Monty Python and the Holy Girl. Certainly, Besson's a director who sees only what he wants to see.
When I put it to him that his film received poor advanced word, he looks shocked. "Really?" he says. Telling me he never reads reviews, his voice is full of genuine surprise. "It's one of my favourite films. I love it." His ego clearly intact, it certainly scotches any thoughts that the long hiatus between Joan of Arc and his two new films is anything to do with him being crushed by the critics and entering a creative funk. To be fair, Angel-A is an exuberant piece of work, stripped of the portentousness of his recent blockbusters.
Shot in black-and-white, it tells the story of a debt-ridden scam artist named André (Jamel Debbouze). About to take his life by jumping from a bridge into the Seine, he stops when he spies a beautiful girl named Angela (Rie Rasmussen) attempting to do the same.
When he saves her life, she promises to help him - and so becomes his unconventional guardian angel. "I started to write the script a long time ago," Besson says. "I had the idea, the two characters, but I was not able to write it properly. I was too young. I couldn't make them talk. I knew what I wanted but I couldn't find the words, but 10 years later, when life slams you a few times, and you grow up and get older, suddenly it was easy to write."
He claims the story fights against the inherent cynicism he sees in the world today; the film deals with the "non-acceptance of who we are", as he puts it. "It's the biggest sickness of the world today. From 17 to 45 years old, everybody that I know has some difficulties to look in the mirror and say: 'I love you!'"
It just so happens that Besson turned 46 last year, when he completed the film. Does this mean he's finally learnt to accept himself? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says, breathlessly, without really explaining why. Besson has been married three times and has four daughters. Currently with producer Virginie Silla, he has twice wed his leading ladies - Anne Parillaud (Nikita) and Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element and Joan of Arc).
At this point, Besson sets out on a rant about the way in which the media emphasise physical perfection. "You take a newspaper, you take a magazine, and it basically tells you that you have to look like Brad Pitt, otherwise you're shit," he says. "And we're looking in the mirror and not looking like Brad Pitt, so what are we going to do? Kill ourselves? Or say: 'I like the way I am. Try and be better tomorrow than today and I will love you.' And that's it. And it's even worse for women! You want to sell a bar of soap, the girl is naked; you want to sell yogurt, the girl is naked - and beautiful. Not all girls look like Naomi Campbell, but they still have to lead their lives, they still have to be happy, and society puts such pressures of beauty and money on us. And it's terrible because that's fake."
It's yet another example of Besson's blindness. He's not exactly from the Mike Leigh school of casting when it comes to fleshing out his female leads. Like Jovovich before her, Rasmussen, the leggy Danish star of Angel-A, is a former model. And, as his private life has shown, Besson is all too willing to chase physical perfection.
Nevertheless, he evidently found the film (shot during the lengthy post-production process on Arthur and the Minimoys, which blends live action with complex 3D computer animation) a liberating experience. "After three years, I just wanted to grab a camera, an actor and an actress and make something the opposite to Arthur. Small, fast, lots of dialogue, real characters, real emotion... it was wonderful."
Arthur and the Minimoys and its sequels tread similar territory to that of Harry Potter. With the books selling well over a million copies in 30 different countries, Besson is now putting the finishing touches to the film, which stars Mia Farrow and Freddie Highmore (who played the lead role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and features the voices of Madonna, David Bowie and Snoop Dogg.
The story sees the 10-year-old Arthur (Highmore) set out on a treasure hunt after finding a secret passage to the tiny Lilliputian-like world of the Minimoys. "It starts like a normal film," says Besson, "then suddenly Freddie shrinks, shrinks, shrinks..."
With the Chronicles of Narnia sequel delayed until next year, Besson knows he has a chance of cleaning up at Christmas with his first family- friendly film. "I think people follow me because I try to come with different things," he says, fairly. "Sometimes people prefer this or that, but at least they know that every time I come with something different."
True enough, though following Arthur and the Minimoys with a sequel or two will hardly bolster his reputation for originality. Or, indeed, for keeping his word - particularly as most of us were expecting him to lay down his arms once he completed his tenth movie. Whether he decides to reload, or whether he really has run out of ammunition, we'll just have to wait and see.
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