Luc Besson's name is most strongly associated with films he made in the 1990s, specifically Léon (known as The Professional in many non-snob American film circles) and The Fifth Element. To a lesser extent, there's also Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita) which spawned a lesser-known television series. Besson's name is attached to many projects, often as writer or producer, that occasionally make some wary, but a much smaller percentage of projects with his name on them are actually his directorial work. In addition to the films above, which he at least had a hand in writing in all cases, he also wrote and directed Subway, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and Angel-A, to name the most prominent adult films. He also wrote this one.
Johana Baker (Rosanna Arquette) is an insurance investigator sent to the frozen nether regions of the world to check on a scientific expedition. Breezing past her is the seemingly inhuman diver Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), who is extremely skilled at free-diving. As a child (played by Bruce Guerre-Berthelot), he competed with Enzo Molinari (Gregory Forstner) off the coast of Sicily. Now that they are grown, Enzo (now played by Besson friend and regular Jean Reno) is a competitive diver in contrast to Jacques' pure love for the sea (diving being a simple manifestation of this love, as well as a conduit through which to experience it). He cannot resist his childhood rivalry, though, and coerces Jacques into joining him in the world free-diving championships. When Jacques' natural talent surpasses Enzo's record, both men are driven to go further than ever before, creating increased danger in the sport, as they push themselves to points the human body is not meant to withstand. Jacques is less competitive, but is pulled in by his love of the sea, shown in his companionship with a trio of dolphins, and only briefly interrupted by the interference of Johana's intense love for him.
It would be very easy to simply write off a nearly-three-hour director's cut of a film that's primarily about diving as dull, boring, uneventful and any number of synonyms you wish to throw at it. However, that's faulting an introspective film for not being an action film. It's a forgivable expectation considering the rest of Besson's output, but it's still unfair to the film itself. It's almost always spoken of as "Besson's most personal film," though I'm not entirely sure how anyone arrived at this conclusion–with the possible exception of Besson having openly stated this. Short of digging through ancient interviews to discover this, I see no point in examining this particular detail any further. Still, it is a more introspective film, regardless of who it is examining. Jacques Mayol gave his blessing to being used as the main character when Besson asked, and apparently had an honest love for dolphins (and a respect and admiration for them, exhibited in his book L'Homo Delphinus). Still, I am quite far from an expert on Mayol's life, just as I am no expert on Besson's, and cannot very firmly describe any realistic emotional connections between either man and the film.
What this film is to nearly anyone who watches it is one thing: pretty. Even those who find it dull or intensely boring (I suppose that's almost an oxymoron, isn't it? How IS boredom intense?) will usually agree and admit this part of it. It's (allegedly, for I've not seen it without) best experienced in the "Director's Cut," which appears on the US DVD release and contains Éric Serra's beautiful synthetic score for the film, which is bolstered by a burbling bassline through much of the underwater images. Serra has been a longtime collaborator of Besson's, so it only makes sense that his score would be the best fit for the film. Prettiness aside, this film is an interesting mixture of introspection (I apologize for the repetition, but there is no better word) and romance, leading some silly soul to be quoted in the insert as calling it a "romantic comedy"–not unfair, in that it contains both of these things, but it can't really easily be called that all the same. And of course one has to admit that some of the romance is not between Johana and Jacques, but between Jacques and the sea. There's no question his love for the sea is effectively unbreakable. It calls to him in the middle of the night, haunts him when it takes the lives of those near him, but never loses its calm, alluring mystique.
There's some debate to be had about the end of the film, which is clear enough from the fact that the re-scored, heavily cut American release (which loses about fifty minutes of footage!) contains a different one. It is, however, the right ending, however wrong it may be, however strange or difficult to understand. There's a great degree of ambiguity in it, too, not really endorsing the choices that are made, nor condemning them, nor even really explaining or confirming them. But they are the right actions for the characters involved at that point. It is indeed a beautiful film, but not just for the imagery, also for the ideas that Besson puts into it. It's about finding oneself, about fulfilling life and completing it–not defining how it is best to do so, or saying that this can always even be done, or even that there's a happy ending for every single person around, but about the search for meaning in all of it.