It’s a bit of a no-brainer. Why Luc Bes­son loves Lucy,

It took Luc Bes­son 10 years to get his lat­est sci-fi ac­tioner Lucy to the big screen – much of that time spent talk­ing to sci­ence pro­fes­sors. “You will never get any­where if you don’t open doors,” he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Luc Bes­son is dis­cussing a car-chase scene from his new blockbuste­r, Lucy. Plus ça change, right? Mais non. The se­quence in ques­tion fea­tures a car trav­el­ling at light speed: “I speeded up the car un­til you can’t see it. So then you have to ask, if I can­not see it, is it re­ally there? It’s dif­fi­cult to in­te­grate Ein­stein’s ideas of rel­a­tiv­ity into an en­ter­tain­ing film. It was a great chal­lenge.”

Bes­son is sit­ting with me in a Knights­bridge ho­tel. He’s in a buoy­ant mood and rightly so. His lat­est film, Lucy, has re­cently beaten off stiff com­pe­ti­tion from the Dwayne John­son ve­hi­cle Her­cules to open in the num­ber-one spot at the US box of­fice. In­dus­try an­a­lysts and pun­dits have been quick to take note and pro­nounce that the times, they are a changin’.

Lucy, played by Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, is one of sev­eral fe­male hero­ines to dom­i­nate this sum­mer’s tent-pole sched­ule, and the only one who broaches sub­jects such as physics and bio­chem­istry.

“Ev­ery so of­ten, a film like In­cep­tion comes along and all the in­dus­try peo­ple who think they know ev­ery­thing have to re-think what they know,” laughs Bes­son. “If Lucy does that in a small way, then I’m happy.”

With­out be­ing too spoiler-y, Bes­son’s lat­est (and ar­guably great­est) film, does fun things with space, time and the divine Ms Scar­lett, who, in keep­ing with the tra­di­tion of ro­bust Bes­so­nian hero­ines, faces phys­i­cal chal­lenges that make the same ac­tor’s Black Wi­dow look like Mans­field Park’s Fanny Price.

Bes­son likes his muses tough: he has been pre­vi­ously mar­ried to sev­eral of his ar­se­kick­ing lead­ing ladies, no­tably Nikita’s Anne Par­il­laud, Leon’s Maïwenn Besco and The Fifth El­e­ment’s Milla Jovovich.

“I put them through it be­cause they de­serve good roles,” he says. “When I made Nikita, peo­ple said ‘Oh, you can have a girl with a gun’. I opened the door. And I’m very happy that so many women, like An­gelina Jolie, have walked through it.”

Lucy doesn’t need an ar­moury. She has her­self and an ex­trav­a­gantly imag­i­na­tive set-up. Even Bes­son, an artist ac­cus­tomed to work­ing at break­neck speeds, required a decade to craft the end­lessly in­ven­tive pic­ture, which turns out to be this sum­mer’s most outré hit by some mar­gin.

“It started 10 years ago,” says the Paris-born film-maker. “I was pro­mot­ing a movie in small town. And the mayor hosted a din­ner and seated a young lady next to me. And I think: I bet it’s the niece of the ma­jor – it’s always the niece of the mayor – and she wants to be an ac­tress. So I ask her what she does and she says I’m a pro­fes­sor work­ing on the nu­cleus of cells that get can­cer. I was re­ally not ex­pect­ing that. I end up having a con­ver­sa­tion for three hours and some of that con­ver­sa­tion is in the film.”

He ad­mits to em­bel­lish­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal fact with Bes­so­nian fic­tion. But the film is, he in­sists, uni­fied by a ker­nel of hard sci-fi (as op­posed to the less fact-friendly soft va­ri­ety).

“We have one hun­dred bil­lion cells that can each send 1,000 mes­sages per­sec­ond. So the num­ber of con­nec­tions in the hu­man body is in­sane. Andwe have no ac­cess to this process. I can­not say to my body to do this or that at a cellular level.

“So my ques­tion was: ‘What if we could ac­cess our bod­ies at a cellular level?’”

A lit­tle bit of neuro-folk­lore

Bes­son worked with neu­rol­o­gists and aca­demics in or­der to find some kind of an­swer. But a lit­tle bit of neuro-folk­lore – the old chest­nut that holds “we only use 10 per cent of our brains” – turned out to be nar­ra­tively use­ful, too.

“I know it’s not a real the­ory,” laughs Bes­son. “It’s just a pop­u­lar idea from the 1960s. The real sci­ence is more com­pli­cated. We only use around 15 per cent of our neu­rons at the same time. Never 100 per cent . But that ques­tion is too com­pli­cated for a movie. So say­ing 10 per cent of our brain is eas­ier. Af­ter that you have to imag­ine the steps. So I worked with a cou­ple of pro­fes­sors. The first step, we con­trol our­selves com­pletely. The sec­ond step, we can con­trol oth­ers. The third step is the con­trol of mat­ter. That’s when the pro­fes­sors said I was get­ting into the realm of sci-fi. And the fi­nal step . . . well, I’d pre­fer for peo­ple to find that out in the movie. But it was very funny to talk with sci­en­tists be­cause it can’t be proved or dis­proved. So they were sud­denly mute.”

We shouldn’t be too sur­prised to dis­cover the film-maker mess­ing with the rules of space and time. Bes­son’s mind-blow­ing mu­nif­i­cence has of­ten left us won­der­ing: how ever does he do it? Since the early 1980s, Bes­son has writ­ten 56 films, has di­rected 21 of them and has pro­duced more than a hun­dred ti­tles, in­clud­ing Nil By Mouth, I love You, Philip Mor­ris, The Three Buri­als of Melquiades Estrada, and re­cent Cannes con­tender The Homes­man. He works out­side the sys­tem, usu­ally an en­tire ocean and a con­ti­nent away from Hol­ly­wood, and yet he con­tin­uesto fash­ion Euro-ac­cented US chart top­pers, in­clud­ing his re­cent mafia com­edy, The Fam­ily.

He colours well out­side the lines in an in­dus­try that have never been more for­mu­laic.

“I pro­tect my­self by having my­own pro­duc­tion com­pany,” he says. “The en­tire com­pany is not about money. Be­cause you can’t pre­dict what will make money in three years. You can only be hon­est and pro­tect the heart of the film. Peo­ple say you have to use this ac­tor to­day or you have to shoot this way. And I don’t want that. I want to be able to cre­ate and try new things. Peo­ple screamed when Pi­casso put a nose in an ear. You will never get any­where if you don’t open doors.”

For all his vari­abil­ity, when we try to pic­ture a Luc Bes­son film, we’re likely to con­jure up blis­ter­ing ac­tion scenes; he is, af­ter all, the screen­writer who orig­i­nated the Trans­porter films. And Taken 1 & 2. And District 13. And Brick Man­sions. Need we go on?

“I re­act as a movie goer. Some­times I see big ac­tion films and I sit back and ad­mire the tech­ni­cal specs and think ‘wow, that’s amaz­ing. But then af­ter an hour I start to look at my watch. I start to won­der what I’m do­ing later. Be­cause I know the game. I know the end. I know the sur­prise. I’m too old for all that. It’s okay when you’re 12. But to­day I need more. I need food. I need some­thing like Lucy that will make me look up things on the in­ter­net later.”

Bes­son has long em­bod­ied the phrase vive la différence. The son of two Club Med scuba in­struc­tors, he had planned to be­come a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist un­til an accident, at the age of 17, left him un­able to dive. He soon found so­lace in writ­ing and film-mak­ing. By the late-1980s, he had scored in­ter­na­tional hits with Sub­way (1985) and The Big Blue (1988) and was a lead­ing fig­ure in what critic Raphaël Bas­san called “cinéma du look”. Other French crit­ics were less kind and used phrases like “style over sub­stance”. But Bes­son has never been one to cosy up to the es­tab­lish­ment.

“I just read a re­view by a French critic that said ‘Luc Bes­son does not have a brain’,” he laughs. “It’s just a bunch of peo­ple talk­ing so I don’t care. You’re talk­ing about 15 or 20 peo­ple. It’s like the idea of reli­gion. It can be a beau­ti­ful idea. But then there are guardians of the tem­ple. And they think god wants them to kill peo­ple. And cinema is like that.

“Ex­cept that first, there’s no tem­ple, and sec­ond, the guardians don’t make films. So I don’t mind what they think that’s good. I just want to be true to my­self.”

Lucy is out now on gen­eral re­lease and is re­viewed on page 11

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