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My Life As a Fish

A new version of The Big Blue gets pretty and deep -- maybe too deep.

French director Luc Besson's underwater adventure The Big Blue has inspired ecstasy in fans around the world since 1988, and for the American contingent, the release this week of a "director's cut" of the film will surely be cause for celebration. Besson (La Femme Nikita) has added almost an hour of footage to the 119-minute version audiences here first saw twelve years ago, killed the treacly Bill Conti score to restore the more advanced Eric Serra music heard in the original European release and lopped off the former made-for-U.S.A. "happy ending" in favor of a little romantic tragedy.

Those who already think that Blue speaks of man's place in the universe (and under the ocean) are bound to be enthralled by the changes and won't mind spending almost three hours watching the new version. Those who saw it the first time around as a pretentious sports movie with some gorgeous shots of bottle-nosed dolphins and a dash of Greek myth thrown in will probably want to spend their eight bucks elsewhere.

For the uninitiated, here are the basics. Two competitive boys who've grown up together on a scenic Greek island remain rivals as young adults. The sensitive, handsome Frenchman, Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr), and the grizzled, macho Italian, Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno), are now both world-class "free divers," which means that they descend on a tether to nearly impossible depths, without the aid of any breathing apparatus. Either man can hold his breath longer than an autograph hound waiting for Jennifer Lopez at the stage door and withstand more atmospheric pressure than a rookie pitcher in the World Series. As the movie goes on, Jacques and Enzo keep exchanging the world record -- and chiding each other, as top-notch athletes are wont to do. In such dramas, only one thing can happen: Someone will try to go too far.

Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) explores the depths of the oceans in The Big Blue.
Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) explores the depths of the oceans in The Big Blue.

But, as Big Blue cultists will tell you, Besson doesn't stop there. Despite the fact that this is his first English-language film, he's a deep-thinking Frenchman through and through, intent on exploring the metaphysical implications of Jacques and Enzo's quest to dive ever deeper, as well as the poetry in their obsession. Simply said, these guys want to be fish. And become one with the sea. Apparently, this is the thing that so intrigues people who find the movie profound -- the notion of reversing or side-tracking evolution and finding your true self in the briny deep. Indeed, some of the film's long, complex underwater sequences are absolutely beautiful, but just as often, Besson's philosophical ruminations take unintentionally hilarious form. Jacques carries a picture of a dolphin in his wallet, as if it were a beloved girlfriend. Enzo is a ten-lire existentialist who's always going on about the meaning of life. If we didn't know better, a lot of us would think The Big Blue is an elaborate put-on -- a tongue-in-cheek spoof in which muscular jock biography meets French art-house cinéma.

Alas, Besson is no satirist. Anyone who's seen his ultra-violent hitman fantasies, La Femme Nikita and The Professional, or endured last year's overwrought interpretation of Joan of Arc, The Messenger, understands that this film director takes himself pretty seriously. As philosophy or as an expression of the quest for true love, The Big Blue may not hold water now any better than it did in 1988, but don't try telling that to its adherents. The new media notes for the film are chock-full of public raves suggesting adolescent rapture. "This movie is the absolute top production ever made by mortal man," an unnamed fan from Amsterdam trills. "Its deep and pure poetry enchanted me, and there is no film that could be compared with The Big Blue," an anonymous German writes.

Okay, but here's betting Rosanna Arquette is staying as far away from this re-release as possible. In the thankless role of Jacques's girlfriend Joanna, an insurance investigator who falls for him in Peru, then pursues him to Sicily, Arquette was (and is) the picture of a mindless, screeching American ditz. She's stuck with awful straight lines like: "What does it feel like when you dive?" and -- we're not kidding here -- the following expression of her heart's desire: "I wanna have a baby with you. I wanna have a house with you. I wanna have a car with you, and a dog with you."

I wanna have a car with you? It took Besson and four additional screenwriters to come up with that one. Meanwhile, little does poor, shrill Joanna know how badly Jacques simply wants to sprout gills and get himself to the bottom of the Mediterranean, while she returns to her lame landlubber's life back in New York. Heaven help us. The dream sequence in which our hero imagines his bedroom tossed on a surging sea throbbing with dolphins may be one of the most beautiful images ever committed to film, but unless you're a committed Big Blue cultist, it's in the service of pompous mumbo-jumbo.

 
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