The reading room of the Institut Francais was once a ballroom. The windows are formed of white struts that divide panes of clear and lilac-coloured glass into teardrops, diamonds, pentagons and circles. Between them, lamps like huge seashells face the high ceiling, from which hang glowing rings ten feet across. Built in the 1930s and carefully renovated three years ago it is, like other well-kept Art Deco buildings, simultaneously modern and antique – a vision of the future, imagined in another time.
This library is also probably the best place outside France to read French comic books. Among the 50,000 volumes that line the walls are all the titles that first gave Luc Besson a glimpse of other worlds. “I was raised with all these comic books,” he tells me. “Spirou first, and Tintin, and then Pilote. Asterix, for sure, and Lucky Luke. and then Metal Hurlant – later, when I was 14, 15. That was my source. That was my… iPad.”
“When I was young there was no internet, no TV at home – and anyway, there was only one channel – so comic books were the equivalent of YouTube today for young people. When you have a comic book, it’s an open gate on other worlds.”
It’s not hard to see the parallels between the comics Besson grew up reading and his films, operatic collections of images in which the script is never much more than a libretto. His first feature, the post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat, contains a single word of dialogue (“bonjour”) repeated once. In the 80s and 90s Besson’s aggressively stylish Subway, Nikita and Leon came to define cinema du look – fast, colourful movies that spoke the graphic language of high fashion and MTV. In 1997 he took cinema du look into orbit with his best-known film, The Fifth Element, a sci-fi blockbuster in which the cast was headed by a supermodel and the costumes were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. In a year in which sci-fi fans had to sit through Alien: Resurrection, Starship Troopers and re-releases of the Star Wars trilogy, The Fifth Element stood out as a bright and refreshing alternative to Hollywood’s generic image of the future.
Again, comics were key to The Fifth Element’s success. Working alongside the fashion designers were two of France’s best-know comic artists. The first was Jean “Moebius” Giraud, an idol of Besson’s. “For me, the Miles Davis of comics. He is the absolutely the king of the thing, he pushed all the limits. He surprises you all the time. You think he has a style, a way of doing things… he takes you to space – and then, the next album is a Western.” But Besson is a director of popular, big-budget movies. Asked if he’d like to film a Moebius comic, he replies that “That… would be tough.” The second artist was Jean-Claude Mezieres, one of the two creators of the long-running sci-fi romance, Valerian et Laureline.
Besson says buying the rights to Valerian was necessary “because, technically, it was impossible to do.” The worst-case scenario for Besson would have been for one of the American studios, which he describes as “pretty fast and… angry”, to gobble up his beloved comic and leave the film unmade. “I just didn’t want anyone to put their hands on the rights. I’d rather to buy them myself, and then wait.”
Besson says American comics come from a very different “source” to the French titles lining the walls. “There is something very political about it. Superman is American, and he’s going to save the economy, he’s going to save the world. He’s going to fight the villains. In Europe, it comes from Grimm’s, it comes from Verlaine, from Rimbaud, from Raphael, from painters, from the Renaissance. Our approach to sci-fi is much more poetic, lyric, open-minded. Sci-fi for us is more about discovery, what’s beyond, rather than ‘let’s show that in the future, we will be the masters’”.
While it’s not entirely clear how many of Gaston Lagaffe’s adventures were directly influenced by fin-de-siecle poetry, it is certainly true that American comics are being turned into summer blockbusters on a production line of ever-increasing efficiency. There are seven films based on Marvel comics alone scheduled for next year, six of which continue established franchises. “Marvel or DC”, says Besson, “are much more driven by the budget and the schedule. Usually they are going to work for eight weeks with 25 people.” To adapt Valerian et Laureline, by contrast, he began by contacting thousands of designers, years in advance.
“I started to choose the designers five years ago. I sent a letter to schools all around the world, saying that we’re going to make a sci-fi film and if you want to participate, send three drawings – one alien, one spaceship, one world. We received 6,000 applications; we selected ten of them. I hired five to work for a year, and kept five in backup because I knew that after a year, they would be cooked, and we would have to put in some fresh blood.”
Besson kept his artists in isolation. “They never read the script. They didn’t know each other. The only communication they had was [with] me. We spoke by Skype, because one of them was in Brazil, another one was in Japan, and in China, and the other ones were in the US. Once a week they had me on screen, and we were talking straight from the designer to the guy who is going to make the film. We worked like that for a year and a half, and they brought me more than 4,000 drawings. That was the creative part of the film – all the aliens, the costumes, the locations, the spaceships, everything.”
“I was writing non-stop during this time, so sometimes they would bring a drawing that was so amazing that I would change the script, to use the idea that was in the drawing.”
Watching the resulting film, Valerian and The City of A Thousand Planets, there is a scale to some shots that seems more like illustration than filmmaking. This is because the image format Besson chose, Cinemascope, is very wide. “It’s a very particular frame. You cannot tell the story the same way if you’re in Cinemascope or if you’re in 1.66 [the common widescreen format]. I can compose my image, and my storytelling will move inside my frame.” Keeping the action in this wide frame, without cutting back and forth, reflects what happens in an illustrated panel. “In a comic book, you have to say a lot of things in one frame. You have the dialogues, the answers, the drawings. It’s the same principle. You have enough room to say a lot of things. If I was not using Cinemascope, it would look less like a comic book.”
Despite the years of effort and the devotion to his source material, the critics have not been kind to Valerian. Empire gave the film two stars, a rating that places it below the latest Vin Diesel movie, the wholly unwanted Blair Witch threequel and a film based on the Troll Doll toy franchise. The New York Times says the film “feels as if it were made up on the spot”. But while Besson’s films have often been too fizzy and tangy for cineastes – the NYT took a similarly sniffy attitude to The Fifth Element in 1997 – there is no argument that this is a grand spectacle, an explosion of colour and a work that is true to the nature of its director, a man for whom the future never gets old.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is in UK cinemas from 4 August.