Colour, 1988, 168m. / Directed by Luc Besson / Starring Rosanna Arquette, Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno / Columbia (US R1 NTSC), Fox (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

The first of director Luc Besson's unabashed odes to the sea, The Big Blue (Le grand bleu) has existed in so many different versions that its fan base must be relieved to have a "definitive" cut available at last. A financial success almost everywhere except in America, its waterlogged reputation has taken over a decade to recover its shaky theatrical run, primarily thanks to Besson's subsequent high profile career with La Femme Nikita and Leon, among others. Based very loosely on the life of real life diver Jacquel Mayol, The Big Blue concerns the mysterious link between Jacques (Lars Von Trier regular Jean-Marc Barr) and the call of the "big blue," particularly the dolphins swimming below. From early childhood he becomes close to Enzo (Jean Reno), a fellow free diver. Both of them are capable of controlling their heart rate and breathing, allowing them to sink to unnatural depths. After Jacques' father dies in the ocean, the two friends lose touch. Jacques becomes involved with beautiful, daffy insurance clerk Johanna (Rosanna Arquette), who follows him from Peru to a diving competition in Italy. There Jacques meets up again with Enzo, the world's diving champ, and their rivalry and friendship become reignited. Johanna and Jacques begin a passionate but difficult affair in which he finds himself unable to commit to her, torn between the solidity of the real world and the spiritual beckoning of the blue water.

Though definitely not a film for everyone, The Big Blue is in many respects the ultimate Luc Besson movie. The stunning widescreen cinematography and intense, varied score by his regular composer, Eric Serra, give the film a unique flavor and an eerie resonance despite the threadbare plotline. The entire concept of Jacques' relationship with the dolphins could have been hokey, leading to little more than a TV movie-of-the-week, but Besson's passionate handling of the material manages to pull it off. Not surprisingly he returned to the sea again for Atlantis, a free form, plotless film exploring the various wonders of the deep, with Serra performing musical duties again. It would make a perfect companion to The Big Blue if it were only easier to find. As for the cast, Barr makes an appealing debut with a difficult role, while Reno continues his string of quirky Besson roles. For cult movie fans, note that Arquette and Griffin Dunne (as her boss) reteam after the underrated After Hours, and even Kimberley Beck, the heroine from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, puts in an appearance.

American viewers first encountered this film in a 118 minute edition which substituted a Bill Conti score and, unbelievably, tacked on a happy final scene which completely refuted everything preceding it. However, while the Conti score may not be in keeping with the fabric of Besson's vision, it's a beautiful, stirring piece of work, and this alone justifies tracking down the American version as an alternative. Meanwhile in Europe, a 120 minute cut was released to theatres and video with the Serra score intact and several alternate scenes not included in the American print (and vice versa). A Japanese laserdisc provided the first imported look at a truer version of Besson's film, but the real surprise came in 1994 when the European distributor, Fox Video, issued The Big Blue - Version Longue on videotape in the UK This 168 minute, letterboxed "extended cut" restored all of the existing footage, with some restored scenes (mostly Arquette's) in French with English subtitles. Finally, Columbia's DVD offers yet a fourth cut of the film, with the French scenes now synched back up into English. This "director's cut" is the same as the British tape in other respects and includes the original Serra score, even isolated as a separate audio track. Bearing in mind the bizarre distribution history, the DVD looks exceptional and blows away all previous video transfers. Colours are rich and stable, with only a few traces of that familiar '80s "hazy" look cropping up here and there. The 5.1 mix does what it can, with some limited split surrounds confined mainly to Serra's score. The sound design is quite beautiful, though, and does a masterful job of pulling the viewer into the story's magical spell. The disc also includes a photo gallery, the US theatrical trailer, and trailers for Besson's The Messenger and Leon. (What, no Fifth Element?)

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