For a man who makes his living writing and producing muscular action movies like the "Taken" franchise, Luc Besson is a filmmaker who has continually shown an amazing sensitivity and fondness for strong female characters. These aren't buxom bimbos that wield Uzis and mutter one-liners; these are fully dimensional characters that Besson is seemingly fascinated by, since they turn up in everything from historical epics to tiny, Kapra-esque comedies. The newest Luc Besson heroine is the title character played by Scarlett Johansson in this week's "Lucy," about a young woman who, after accidentally ingesting an experimental drug, unlocks the potential of the human brain. It's crazy and kind of awesome, and the latest in a long line of Besson's strong female characters.
"Lucy" is the second film in as many years for Besson, who had seemingly decided to devote more of his time to writing and producing European action movies than making films for himself. When we asked Besson if this recent jag of activity is evocative of anything, he shrugged (we could hear it over the phone line, we swear). "I don't know," Besson said. "I am so lucky that I can do what I want. Sometimes I feel to make a small black-and-white French film, and I do it. And even if it doesn't work, it doesn't matter – it teaches me things, I learn things with each film." Besson then drifted into more philosophical territory, (possibly because we had spent 20 minutes running through much of his career), and said: "My biggest fear at the beginning was to make 'Nikita' all my life or 'Leon' all my life. I feel, as an artist, I want to open doors all the time. Sometimes it's big and the audience will be there and sometimes not. But it doesn't matter. I'm here to learn and to try. It's the only way to be respected."
And now, let's run through some of Besson's most memorable heroines…
"La Femme Nikita" (1990)
The stereotypical Luc Besson heroine would be established in one of his very first movies – 1990's kicky spy thriller "Le Femme Nikita," about a beautiful young street thug who is hired by a mysterious French spy organization. Anne Parillaud played the title character and in real life would also have a secret identity as Besson's wife (they have since divorced). Besson said that Parillaud's aura inspired the character. "At the time, when I met Anne, she was very mysterious," Besson explained. "She didn't want to say anything about her life. She was very mysterious to me. And then I started to think, Maybe she has a double-life. Maybe she's a double agent. Maybe she's a killer. And that's how it starts." Hopefully, we joked, that wasn't the case. To which Besson shot back: "I still don't know."
"Leon/The Professional" (1994)
Besson returned to the world of "Le Femme Nikita," sort of, with "The Professional" (titled "Leon" overseas) his simmering crime thriller about a French hitman (played by Jean Reno) living amongst the Italian American community in modern day New York. As Besson told us: "'Leon' comes from 'Nikita,' in fact. There's a character in 'Nikita' called The Cleaner, and Jean Reno said, 'I love the character of The Cleaner. Can you make a feature film with The Cleaner?' So then I started to think about the Italian cover of the cleaner, and his name was Leon. And so I started to work on 'Leon.'"
In "The Professional," Besson turns a young Natalie Portman, playing a girl named Matilda whose family is murdered by a double-dealing DEA agent, into his heroine. The decision didn't come from any feminist agenda on Besson's part, but rather a desire to partner Reno with his polar opposite. "I worked with opposites, so I put in the front of Leon every situation and how he would react – male, female, young, old, strong, weak, a plant, a dog, a bird. I put every type of character up against him and tried to see which was the most interesting," Besson said. "Very quickly, one thing was very interesting – a little girl. That's how Matilda is born. She's born after Leon. She is the exact opposite – small, a girl, innocent." Not that they're all that different: "At the same time they are exactly the same. They're both 14-year-olds. Mentally he is fourteen. And she is supposed to be eleven but really she's fourteen."
"The Fifth Element" (1997)
Besson's most ambitious project is also the one with the most unlikely female hero – his whirligig sci-fi spectacle "The Fifth Element," which seems to have been inspired by French comic books (Bruce Willis' wise-ass cab driver could have been ripped from "Heavy Metal" too), "Star Wars," and silent sci-fi films. It turns out that Besson had been thinking about this story for a long time. "I grew up 60 kilometers from Paris. That's where we make the cheese. So when you want to make movies, it's really not the right place to be. And when I opened my window, I see cows. So believe me, I wanted to escape," Besson explained. "I started to write 'The Fifth Element' when I was 15 years old. I wrote 800 pages. And obviously I was not a director yet. So I always had this book on the side. And after two or three films I started to think about it, like, I'd really like to do this movie about a flying cab."
When it came to crafting his otherworldly heroine, the lithe, orange-haired Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich), Besson wanted to fly in the face of convention. "When I worked on the character of Leeloo, my first feeling was, when we wait for the supreme warrior, we always expect The Terminator or Schwarzenegger or Stallone," Besson said (and rightfully so – this was produced in the mid-nineties, at the height of those actors' power). "And I thought it was so funny that it was a woman and we don't understand a word of what she's saying, and she's just enjoying herself. It's the exact opposite. I wanted to create the exact opposite of what you were thinking." And he did. "The Fifth Element" was the most successful French film in history… up until "The Intouchables" was released in 2011.