I plan to burn many, many bridges with you all today. No. Burn is the wrong action-verb. Demolish. Implode. Destroy? Yes, destroy. I plan to utterly destroy many readers’ thoughts on my ability to recommend another movie, ever again. How would that be possible? After I have brought you epic winners like, Starfish, that you would have absolutely never heard of if you hadn’t started reading here. Or what about The Exam, Shimmer Lake, or In Darkness? Heck, Buster’s Mal Heart?! Any of the thousands of films I’ve won by recommending here at THiNC.? Nope, I plan to demolish years worth of goodwill and cheer, and built up, accreted if you will, with impeccable movie selection after impeccable movie selection. What could possibly be that bad as to ruin well over ten years of stellar movie recommendations? Well, that would be the movie, The Big Blue. And with that, this will be my destructive, hot take Big Blue non-director’s cut praise movie recommendation piece.
There are a few movies like this, lodged deep inside my brain, that have wiggled their way, like a splinter cutting its way to my soul. No, that wasn’t too much hyperbole… thank you very much. These are movies like Platoon and Hamburger Hill – dark brooding ordeals, that have settled into an entire generation’s minds. But for me, these movies are more like, Bad Influence, Pacific Heights, and Tape. Dark and brooding, atmospheric films, that no one I know has even seen, let alone enjoyed, let alone watched hundreds upon hundreds of times… in a row. And this was back in the day when watching a movie repeatedly was difficult. There was no such thing as LOOP, or repeat play, buttons on the remote back then. It required mechanical solutions that mechanically rewound video cassettes, and then reset them to play all over again. This level of obsessiveness required a different level of insanity to complete.
The Big Blue though is a little bit different than my standard fare that sort of sits in this world of obsessiveness that accompanied Dark City, PI, or Event Horizon… in that it is glorious. It’s bright. And it has some of the most beautiful ocean scenes ever shot. (Way better than Water World anyway – which literally says nothing at all.) But I have stipulations on my hot take. Very, very, clear, and concise, and really, really, high maintenance stipulations. But first, what is The Big Blue? What is it about?
The Big Blue tells the highly fictionalized, quasi-autobiographical story of the friendship between two of the world’s great free divers of the 20th century: Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo Maiorca (played by Jean Reno). It also deals with Mayol’s love interest with his girlfriend Johana Baker (which was played by Rosanna Arquette). Free diving, if you don’t know, is a competitive sport wherein the divers plunge into the darkness of the depths of the ocean to see who can go the deepest all without the assistance of oxygen. Obviously there are different types of free diving competitions. (Constant weight, Constant weight without fins, Free Immersion, Dynamic fins, Static Apnea… you get the idea.) In The Big Blue, the competitions are of the No-limits Apnea variety. Which is crazy. Like, the INSANE kind of crazy. If you read about the details of no-limits apnea diving the listing on wikipedia, it says, “This form of diving is considered extremely dangerous by diving professionals. No-limits apnea has claimed the lives of several divers.” And literally, that is what this movie is about.
Did I mention that the current world record set was to the depths of 214 meters. Oh, Americans? Is metric system not your thing? No worries, I got you. That would be 830 feet. eight. three. zero. How can I capitalize numbers? 830!!? My ears hemorrhage at 20 feet. Are you kidding? Never mind that whole, “hold your breath” detail. So the movie is about these rarefied, (some say crazy) athletes that are capable of these Herculean feats of endurance and strength. And in the middle of this just totally mental sport, it also investigates the ideas of love, and loss. But it’s also filmed in literally the most beautiful locations on earth in the Greek isles.
Now, let’s talk for a minute about the one catch to this movie recommendation of mine. Hrm. How should I put this? The movie that I love more than life itself? Yeah, it’s not available anymore. The Big Blue did well in France, and Europe… but it totally wiped out in America. Why? Well, that is a complicated question. To explain this detail thoroughly, you have to know that the film was written and directed by Luc Besson, the film auteur who is world famous, and known for his work on Leon: the Professional, Valerian, Anna, etc. This was one of his first few movies, and it brought him world renowned (and American infamy).
The Different versions of The Big Blue
There are three different versions of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. There is the European theatrical version. There is the American theatrical version. And there is the European extended version. The extended cut, or Director’s cut, was the initial version released on VHS and later on DVD. The extended European version adds an additional 40 minutes to the film’s length, and adds a few new dramatic elements to the arc of the film. But it also significantly slows down an already long film. The American theatrical version also has a changed, “happier” ending that is highly controversial among the film’s fans. But even more importantly, the European and extended version of the film comes with a different score. The American version’s music was scored by Bill Conti, which you can hear highlighted in the youtube clip above. It definitely lends the film a gloriously fantastical feeling to it. That coupled with the glorious visuals, and Greco-seascape and islands? Just elevates this film to a land of perfection in my mind.
And the fact that Mayol, the diver himself, helped Besson write the screenplay is really an interesting detail of the film’s story. After all, it was about Mayol’s desperate search for love, and for family, in the midst of being surrounded by so much death and desperation. It is the story arc between the Mayol character and his girlfriend that really creates the artistic and emotional backbone of this entire film.
The film was a huge success in France and Europe. But the film was a dumpster fire here in America. Luc Besson blamed this on the fact that it had a score by Bill Conti, ran for 118 minutes, and contained the controversial “happy” ending, which I will discuss a little later in this post. And as a result of the wide acclaim the 132/168 minute long film versions were met with in Europe, and the horrifying response it was met with in America, Besson shut down the American Theatrical release of the film. The American theatrical release was initial rolled out as a VHS and Laserdisc release, but was later shutdown, and is now completely out of print. Any version you find today on the market will be the highly inferior “director’s cut” with the addition of the Éric Serra soundtrack. (Yes, this is a hot take that literally no one will ever agree with, but trust me on this one – this is a hill, a very particular hill yes, I will die on this particular hill, that I will die on. And gladly.) Luc Besson is wrong in his love for his European version. 100%. And I’m aware that he is a great movie maker, and accomplished in ways that I will only dream of being. That’s fine. And, given the chance to speak with him about this opinion, I would gladly tell him to his face that he is wrong on this one particular detail about his career. Yes, Americans, by and large, hated his movie. But this had NOTHING to do with the soundtrack, or the missing 40 minutes. Nothing at all. Americans hated it because it wasn’t Batman. And they are idiots. Americans hated it because it was about a couple of kids that loved diving off the gorgeous shores of Greece. Americans hated it because it was slow and dealt with this internal, and deep abiding love for the depths of the ocean, and this gravitational pull deep into its depths. And Americans also hated it because they didn’t grok this depth of love for nature, and almost suicidal desire for its perfection. That is fine. Let them hate it. America is not an arbiter for all things cinematic. That is for sure! That has nothing to do with the fact that he made the right choice with the Bill Conti soundtrack. And he also made the right choice with that American Cinematic ending. Speaking of that ending, let’s talk about it a little bit. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
Ending of the Film Controversy Discussion
In the two versions that Luc Besson released, he might have been worried that Americans would be too sensitive about having a much too upsetting ending to his movie. But before we go there, there is one detail you need to know. Long after The Big Blue was released, Mayol, the diver this story was somewhat about, and who also helped write this story, committed suicide. Now, if you know the details of this movie, and have watched either version, you know that Mayol struggled. He struggled with this draw to the sea. I mean, here are a few quotes from him in his L.A. Times obituary:
“Water, the ocean . . . it is our most natural environment. We are born naked from the miniature ocean of the mother’s womb . . . and breath-hold diving is a continuance of that.”
“It’s also a cult, a way of thinking,” he added, “for when you start breath-hold diving, you enter yourself and begin a marriage with the sea. You become a diving mammal.”
“I don’t dive to conquer the elements,” he said. “I melt into the ocean.”
So now, thinking a bit about Mayol, how he thought about the ocean, and about this idea of wanting to just hide in the ocean’s embrace, we approach the ending of The Big Blue. I’m hopeful you have seen the movie, in one form or another. But if you haven’t – that’s fine. I’ll fill you in. So basically the entirety of the movie is all about Mayol’s preternatural abilities to ionize oxygen in his system better than most people. His body would stop feeding his limbs oxygen, and his system would concentrate it in his brain and his core. A very non-human ability. And when he thought about going into the ocean he considered not coming back… just slipping away into the darkness and never returning to the surface. At least, that was the tension point across the entirety of the movie.
And personally? I can relate to that. This desire to be wrapped up in the loving arms of that thing that you idolize, and to never return? That seems like the most beautiful way to go. (No, please do not send the cops to my house on a health check. I’m fine. Really.) Now, as the movie comes to its conclusion, Mayol struggles with his desire to slip down into the darkness and never come back. His girlfriend is sitting there on the side of the boat, screaming at him to stay. That she wants to give him that love. That she wants to wrap him up and never let him go. Right? And this is the tug in his life – between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
I’m betting no one reading this blog post about The Big Blue is a No-limits Apnea diver. And yet, we can still relate to this larger idea of diving to get away. As a metaphor. Right? It’s a feeling that just seems to make sense. And this enormous struggle to deal with the chaos and hell of life as we know it. You know, the world of taxes, and baby diapers. The world of a wife’s kiss, and the bliss of watching your son learn to ride a bike. Life is filled with tensions like these. Highs and lows. And we balance them all daily. And with that in mind, there are two endings to The Big Blue that Besson created.
Ending One – the European version
So we have Mayol’s girlfriend beseeching him to stay. And – cachunk – Mayol pulls the ripcord on the machine that ferried the divers to the bottom of the dive line throughout the course of the movie. He arrives at the bottom, probably something like 100 meters deep, which was the mark they chased throughout the entirety of the movie. And there he is greeted by a dolphin, and that after some thought, Mayol goes out to the dolphin and then we are greeted with the credits. Here, see it for yourself:
Ending Two – The American Version
Now, with the American version of the film, things are a little different. Same chaos above the water, and same ride to the bottom. Even the same dolphin that greets Mayol at the bottom. But after going out to the dolphin, we see a shot of our rising through the water and light rippling on the surface. And then there is this crescendo of Bill Conti’s music exulting as Mayol and the dolphin play together on the surface of the water. Here, check it out yourself.
Now, after watching both endings, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, which one implies that Mayol survived? Which one is the “happier” ending? I could argue right now that either one implied he died. There is no clear guidance here as to whether or not Mayol survived. Even his playing with the dolphin could be his version of heaven. Right? He arrived where he always wanted to be! And, oh, by the way, he’s dead. No? Yes, the Bill Conti score seems to imply happiness. Is it as a mortal man? Maybe. Is it as an angel of the sea? Maybe. I don’t know. And I’m actually in a fairly cantankerous mood presently, and I could even argue that this European ending actually implies he survives more so than the “happier” American version. It totally depends on what you bring to the ending. And it depends on what you think would make Mayol happier? After all, he did eventually commit suicide in real life. So, there really isn’t much here saying that he did or didn’t commit suicide effectively.
Hot Take Big Blue Non-Director’s Cut Praise
I’m sure that if you first saw The Big Blue in a Parisian theatre, and fell in love with it there – that will be the version that you will stay closely connected to. But personally, the marrow of my bone is welded to the glory that is the American Big Blue. The simplicity of the score, the slow pace of the shots, the spaces of silences and the grandeur? There is nothing with convince me otherwise that this is possibly one of the best movies the world has ever created. Nothing.
To that end, if you happen to have lead on the 720p version of the film that I’ve heard rumored is bouncing around the internet, I’d consider it a personal favor if you point me in the right direction. (And to those of you flipping out about copyright, trust me, I’ll find Besson’s personal address and mail him a check for $19.95 and let him know I pirated his correct version of the film because he took it away from us. And as a result, here’s his 20 bucks to cover his pain and suffering as a result.) I’ve also heard that there are some people out there with the Laserdisc version data, and some are interested in creating a quality version of this by using the video from the European version, as well as the sound from the American version to weld the two together into its correct version! Man, I would love to get involved in helping make this happen. (Have you heard about the Star Wars fans that worked to create a digitized version of A New Hope to restore it back to the original after Lucas messed with it? I digress.) So if you hear of someone that is working on this, I’d love to support them in anyway that I can. Because, like I said, this movie is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.
Edited by: CY
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