Sensual Female Guardian Angels:

Luc Besson’s Early Films, Part 1

In traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, God is represented as a masculine Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) that leaves little room for a feminized vision of either the Creator God or the Messiah figure. However, in the epic poem The Divine Comedy (1321), Dante Aligheri created a “pseudo-Trinity” of divine female figures that included the Virgin Mary, St. Lucy, and Dante’s deceased true love Beatrice Portinari. In the Comedy, Dante’s fictional alter ego takes a tour of Paradise alongside Beatrice, and his soul is ultimately saved by his romantic and religious love for the young woman. While there are limits to Dante’s feminism and views of human sexuality, the passages depicting the love between Dante and Beatrice are borderline erotic and lay the groundwork for future artists to suggest that sex is not always an impediment to salvation, but potentially the very means of achieving it.

This is the view of sex that French filmmaker Luc Besson presents to audiences in his films. As a writer and director, Besson has created his own variation of the Beatrice figure, a highly sexual Divine Mediatrix that he uses as a character template in four of his films: Leon: The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and Angel-A (2005). Angel-A concerns a would-be suicide that is rescued from jumping into the Seine by a gorgeous angel – a plot reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, only with Danish supermodel Rie Rasmussen incongruously in the role of George Bailey’s Guardian Angel Clarence. The science fiction epic The Fifth Element features a romance between a grungy cab driver and a female Christ figure. The Messenger both deconstructs and deifies Saint Joan as it ponders why a teenage peasant girl was able to inspire an army of hard-bitten men to follow her into combat against the British. Finally, in Leon, a hit man who has no connections with the “real” world finds new meaning in life when he falls in love with an innocent young girl.

The actress who personifies Besson’s vision of the feminine ideal differs from film to film, but this Divine female is consistently portrayed as a fundamentally innocent figure. She is innocent despite the evils of the world that she has directly experienced and the sins that she herself has committed. She is an uncannily slender and athletic figure, with long, shapely legs and intense eyes, and she inspires the men around her to embrace life and reform their character by overwhelming them with her awe-inspiring innocence and sexual presence. However, it is important to note that Besson uses Catholic iconography without promoting Roman Catholicism or even traditional organized religion. In fact, for Besson, establishment religion, like all organizations and power structures, are oppressive and strip everyday people of their dignity. Besson’s films suggest that it is only through love that the beauty of life can be reaffirmed in the face of oppressive political and religious systems in society. Therefore, Besson’s Beatrice figure is, essentially, as secularized as she is sexualized, but she retains Beatrice’s iconic grandeur and ability to save men from the meaningless of their existence on Earth.

Born in France in 1959, Besson developed a childhood love of marine life and deep sea diving thanks to his parents, who were scuba instructors for Club Med and raised him in scenic locals throughout the Mediterranean. When an accident made it impossible for him to continue scuba diving, Besson rethought his career options and decided that his love of photography and storytelling would make him an ideal filmmaker. He paid homage to his love of the sea, and marine life, by making The Big Blue (1988), a film inspired by real-life free divers Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maïorca. The film became a cult favorite, despite being panned by critics, and much of Besson’s work has generated a similar response. Indeed, French critics tend to consider Besson’s films to be stylistically impressive, but not substantive, and blame the success of his blockbusters for undermining the characteristic intelligence and avant-garde sensibilities of French cinema. Americans, on the other hand, praise Besson for crafting some of the best and cleverest action films ever made, including two highly regarded movies about assassins, La Femme Nikita (1990) and Leon.

Besson has explained that his stories tend to center on female protagonists because he finds the stereotypically macho male figures that have dominated cinema for thirty years dramatically uninteresting because of their invincibility and lack of psychological depth. In contrast, women characters are “richer” because they are often in a position of having to overcome a social or physical disadvantage and must search for ways “to be able to fight for something or say something.”  Besson says he is drawn to “the feminine part of the male character and the male part of the female character.” Since Besson has been married to two of his lead actresses, including Anne Parillaud (who starred in La Femme Nikita) and Milla Jovivich (The Messenger and The Fifth Element), viewers might be forgiven for seeing the amorous male characters in these films as echoes of the real-life Besson. Indeed, he has said in interviews that the hero of Angel-A is a thinly disguised version of himself. However, some critics have also argued that Besson’s female characters are equally inspired by Besson himself, and not only represent his ideal love interest, but his anima as well. In fact, Besson’s women are all these things at once: they are Besson himself, his anima, his ideal love, his real-life love, and a modern-day, secular Beatrice figure. They can be all these things at once because these ideas play off of one another and are not mutually exclusive. For example, in La Femme Nikita, critics have seen Besson in both the lead female character as well as in the two very different men who fall in love with her. And why can’t he be in all of these characters at once? After all, he is the writer and director of the film and these characters are all his creations.

This idea that Besson himself is both his male and female leads surfaces time and again in his films, but it is fore grounded and discussed implicitly in Angel-A. The film concerns an expatriate Arab-American named Andre who whose American citizenship is unexpectedly revoked while he is living in Paris and he is left penniless, homeless, and 40,000 Euros in debt to loan sharks. Just before jumping off a bridge, he cries out to God, “Will you abandon me?  Why do you never answer me?” His prayer is unexpectedly answered when a beautiful woman appears beside him and attempts suicide herself, distracting Andre from his own depression and giving him the opportunity to save her life. After they spend some time together, and Angela uses unorthodox means to scare the loan sharks away from Andre, she reveals that she is an angel and has been assigned to show him that he is good on the inside and worthy of love, even if he doesn’t know it yet. He is understandably dubious, arguing that, in a world of science and satellite television, it is hard to believe in miracles. After all, as he observes, “A leggy blonde who smokes like a chimney is not exactly how one pictures an angel.”  But, he admits, “If I have faith in you, maybe I’ll have faith in me.”

She explains that his theory is sound because she came to earth as a reflection of his anima, so if he learns to love her, he will learn to love himself as well. Still, as struck as he is by her beauty, and almost instantly head-over-heels in love, he is afraid of confessing his feelings because he fears they will not be returned. When she does get him to say it, it is a climactic moment in the film, and given enormous dramatic weight. The men in Besson’s movies always have difficulty confessing their love, and it is equally dramatic, if not more so, in his other films, because it means that the males have finally allowed themselves to be vulnerable, to love themselves, and to love the woman of their dreams. Soon after this moment, Angela offers Andre the opportunity to make love to her, but he refuses until his spiritual rebirth is complete. At the end of the film, when it seems his rebirth is achieved, and it is time for Angela to return to Heaven, Andre demands that she stay. In Heaven, Angela has no memory, no life of her own, and only responds to God’s commands to help troubled humans. Should she stay with Andre, she will find independence and love. Torn, Angela looks upwards, “God, what should I do?”

“Leave him out of it for once,” Andre demands.

Angela unexpectedly sprouts wings, and it looks as if God is pulling her back to Heaven, but Andre leaps up and grabs Angela’s legs, pulling her down to Earth. After such a show of love and tenacity, Andre proves himself worthy of Angela’s love, and God releases her, allowing her to stay on Earth even when the Book of Destiny had initially decreed that Andre should marry a human. Ultimately, Angela and Andre’s love defies God’s will and rewrites the future, making even the forces of predestination ineffective in the face of true love.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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