4 out of 5 stars

Le grand bleu is Luc Besson’s love letter to the ocean. He began writing the screenplay as a teenager when an accident meant he could no longer dive professionally. His parents had been Club Med scuba diving teachers and a young Besson would play with a wild dolphin for hours off the coast of Morocco when he was aged 10—triggering an ambition to become a dolphinologist! To Besson, a dolphin “without even knowing you, was a creature prepared to play with you and give his time without expecting anything in return. Who has no knowledge of aggression and only does three things all day: eat, play, or make love.”

While his first major film, Subway (1985), was still in production, Besson met with deep-sea diver Jaques Mayol and began to talk through his ideas and passion in a coastal restaurant near Marseille. He later went diving with Mayol off the island of Elba, 30 metres down. The screenplay was to explore “the obsession of losing oneself in the big blue” through the fictionalised story of Mayol’s life—“how one person’s madness is another person’s ecstasy.” It’s also a sensuous and poetic film that conveys the feeling of being underwater, a world of silent beauty…

The film charts a fictionalised and complicated friendship and rivalry between Jaques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca (another professional freediving champion, renamed Mollinari for the film), which spans from their “’60s childhood on a Greek Island to their reunion during deep sea diving competitions in the ’80s”. It also involves a fictionalised romance between Mayol and his girlfriend Johanna Baker. It shows the young and older Mayol’s love of the sea and its creatures – especially the dolphins, the mermaids, who offer unconditional love…

The casting of Enzo Maiorca came easily—Jean Reno, who’d starred in Besson’s first film, a short called l’avant Dernier (1981), which was later worked up into the feature-length film Le combat Dernier (1983), leading to Reno played the enigmatic obsessional drummer in Subway. Reno trained hard to meet the deep-diving rigours of this role. Besson initially wanted to cast his Subway star Christopher Lambert as Jaques Mayol, but the underwater world didn’t come easily to him. Mickey Rourke was another candidate until a casting session in London resulted in Besson seeing Jean-Michel Barr and something clicked. With his “cropped hair, icy blue eyes, the hands of a child and a funny soft voice”, he was a natural in the water and perfect to convey the outsider’s otherworldliness of the Mayol character.

Rosanna Arquette, suddenly Hollywood A-list after the success of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), agreed to play Johanna Baker. Besson recalls “with Rosanna I was welcome in every bar. Madonna was there, so was Prince, we even dropped by for a snack with Bryan Ferry. It was pure Hollywood and she was a Princess in the town.” It was a bonus that her boss in The Big Blue was played by Griffin Dunne, who had co-starred with her in After Hours (1985).

Filming on location was worlds away from Hollywood, from the Bahamas to Peru, via Italy and Greece. The cast and crew lived on a small Greek Island for a few months and, in the days before mobile phones, there was only one telephone between 150 people. Besson recalled “on that piece of rock in deepest Greece there was nothing but film fanatics and sea freaks. We closed ranks and the outside world drifted further and further away. In the end, even the telephone ended up losing customers. Before each dive, we had a quick briefing from the submarine team to decide where everyone should be, and the exact shooting plan according to storyboard. Underwater it’s hard to communicate and we had to respect safety precautions.”

The film opens in luminous monochrome on a Greek island in the 1960s. Jaques is already feeding moray eels and seeking out dolphins in lone scuba dives before he heads into town. A priest watches as Enzo dives from the harbour for a coin spotted by the boys, and after Jaques refuses to compete against Enzo for this prize, the priest directs Jaques to collect another coin from the sea bed “for the poor”. The child actors are excellent at portraying the emotions of the two boys—Jaques already absorbed by his secret life beneath the sea avoiding the searching challenge of Enzo, who wants to know more of “the little Frenchman” beyond the pecking order of his entourage.

Later Enzo watches helplessly from the shore as Jaques loses his father in a diving accident, then the scene shifts to full colour with the bright big blue of the Mediterranean, and we’re suddenly in Sicily 1988 experiencing their adult lives. I still remember first watching the film in a London cinema in late winter and being transported to Mediterranean summer, sweeping shots of the vast shining sea while listening to the overture of Eric Serra’s beautiful soundtrack. Serra had already worked with Besson on the soundtrack for Subway and his Big Blue soundtrack is redolent with dolphin calls, chimes of church bells, the swell of saxophone and funky upbeat sections—uplifting and emotional.

Enzo seeks out “the Frenchman, Jaques Mayol” and invites him to compete in the world deep sea diving competition. Jaques is reluctant. He asks Enzo to “tell him everything” and they get drunk together, but he doesn’t want to beat Enzo in competition. Before this reunion, Jaques has assisted scientific research into human physiological adaptations underwater – and has adopted dolphins as his family. When Johanna Baker first meets Jaques in Peru, it is love at first sight – though he seems convinced he first saw her “beneath the water” rather than just before his dive—and it takes a while for them to get together after she returns to her frenetic New York life. During a long-distance telephone conversation, he tells her how to meet a mermaid—wait at the bottom of the sea and decide that you will die for them—if they judge your love is pure and sincere—then they will take you away forever. This becomes a poignant, painful truth as the romance and rivalry continue…

I love every minute of The Big Blue. I prefer the Director’s Cut which includes Enzo and Jaques taking a diving job on an oil rig (with reckless consequences). It sets up the deep yet difficult friendship between them, and their relationship with the sea itself, more completely. The character portrayals in the film are sympathetic and both Reno and Barr are great actors to convey swift transitions from machismo or absorption in another world to vulnerability and pure joy and love. Enzo and Jaques are a breed apart and share such an addictive love of the sea it feels harder to ordinary life with every dive—Enzo remarks movingly towards the end “you are right my friend, it is better down there.” One can empathise with Johanna’s frustration trying to understand this, and the sorrow that ensues as she follows her own big adventure of falling in love, becoming pregnant, and exploring what love is. We get the sense that Jaques’ absent mother is one barrier to his total commitment, and he does not share how he lost his father on the very coastline Johana chooses to tell him she is with child. Yet they have romantic loving moments—very French!

Even minor characters such as Mama, Roberto, Doctor Laurence, and Uncle Louis are real people with their own eccentricities rather than cyphers. Surrender to the visuals and poetic pacing enhanced by the soundtrack so that you laugh over al dente pasta, you cry over the tragic loss, you are lifted by the keening dolphins and live a slice of life in the Big Blue. There are many moments of fun, especially when the trio helps a dolphin escape to open water, and even the sadly prophetic ending is uplifting – the dolphins have accepted Jaques, after all. It suggests the line from “Heroes”, the David Bowie song: “I wish I could swim like the dolphins can swim…”

The film was a huge success in France from its first showing at Cannes Film Festival in 1988. It was in cinemas constantly for over a year and was the most financially successful film in France of the ’80s. Its success did not translate to the US, however, where it was shown with a soundtrack by Bill Conti and had limited box office success.

Besson later produced a documentary film about the underwater world called Atlantis (1991), which shows beautiful undersea wildlife footage again accompanied by a lovely Eric Serra score, and is also worth seeking out. Of course, since The Big Blue, Besson has continued to gain international success with a varied array of films such as Leon (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Lucy (2014), and most recently Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017).

The real-life Enzo retired from deep-sea diving in the ’80s, then began a career in Italian politics and initially objected to his portrayal in the film. Mayol also retired from diving competitions and sadly committed suicide at his home on Elba in 2001. President Chirac paid tribute to him and called himself “one of the Big Blue generation”. In 2017, Lefteris Charitos made a documentary called Dolphin Man about the life of Jaques Mayol which includes a voiceover by Jean Michel Barr.

The Big Blue is now a cult classic with relevance today as the next generation of deep-sea divers emerges, including Guillame Nery, who retired from freediving competition following injuries when he mistakenly dove to the astonishing depth of 139m in 2015. He has made his own poetic underwater films with his wife, most recently the short film One Breath Around the World (2019).

The Big Blue and Nery’s film offers a gateway to the inner space beneath oceans which make our Earth resemble a pale blue dot from outer space. As coastal dwelling humans, a diet of fish, shellfish, seaweed, and the leisure of knowing that food could be gathered every high tide, helped develop our big brains. It makes sense that the lure of the depths would still be in our psyche – long live the mermaids—but we must also keep on living, to return and tell the tale!

Above all, The Big Blue engenders a deep love for the oceans of the world and as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet BBC documentary series(including the episode “Big Blue” from 2017) showed, we must help preserve the depths for real as well as in our psyche…

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Luc Besson.
writers: Luc Besson, Robert Garland, Marilyn Goldin, Jacques Mayol & Marc Perrier (story by Luc Besson).
starring: Rosanna Arquette, Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Paul Shenar, Sergio Castellitto, Marc Duret & Griffin Dunne.