August 19th, 2023, marks the 35th anniversary of the U.S. release of Luc Besson’s most personal film, The Big Blue, known in France as Le Grand Bleu. His first English language film wasn’t a hit here in the U.S., but it definitely found its audience in other territories.
About 29 years ago, my obsession with the film was still at a fever pitch. I watched it constantly and shared it with anyone that would watch. When my friends and family asked me why I loved it so much, I could only point to the superficial. I loved the cinematography, the score (American score by Bill Conti), and the actors. I immediately fell in love with Jean-Marc Barr, the film’s protagonist, who helped my burgeoning gayness begin to blossom. Rosanna Arquette was a fun treat and guided me to seek out her other work. And Jean Reno would grow to be an international superstar of sorts. I also started to love dolphins, which soon became the go-to Christmas present for me.
But deep down, there was something else I connected with, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So, at age 26 – shortly before my move to Los Angeles – I wrote an essay about what I felt The Big Blue truly meant to me. I called it “The Big Obsession,” and it took a deeper look at how the film was had subconsciously related to what was going on in my life.
It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, and it certainly reflects a time before I made one of the biggest moves of my life, but rereading it, I found a touching charm to it.
And honestly, I think the themes I discovered there still hold true.
So rather than keep this thing buried for another 29 years, I thought I’d give it a little nudge into the “interwebs.” If, for nothing more than to remind people that this movie exists and that it’s pretty terrific.
[Note: This essay contains spoilers by discussing the entire plot and the ending.]
[Also note: The film is not currently available on any streaming platforms, and when it does appear, it is often the 3-hour Director’s cut with the original score by Eric Serra. While I love the additional hour included in the “Version Longue,” I fell in love with the U.S. cut, and that’s the version I’m usually drawn back to.]
THE BIG OBSESSION
By Kevin P. Taft, written sometime in the summer of 1994.
My obsession with the film The Big Blue began in August of 1988. I recall sitting in the theatre on a summer afternoon, feeling surrounded by this new world of water and dolphins. And for some reason, I felt a part of that world. My comprehension that there was some personal meaning involved didn’t hit me until recently, but I became obsessed with the film anyway. In one week, I had seen it three times, probably being solely responsible for its U.S. gross since it certainly wasn’t one of the more popular movies of that season. But it didn’t matter because something clicked.
Years later I still feel I have to justify my passion for this movie. I have learned that you either love it or hate it, and I have actually found a few followers. In France, The Big Blue was a mega-hit. The French version with a different musical score is one of their highest-grossing movies. (There are a total of 4 versions out there in the world.) In America, with its 118-minute cut and beautiful score by Bill Conti, the movie flopped. Nonetheless, The Big Blue has made an impact on my life.
I am a 26-year-old guy with dreams of success in the movie industry, yet who still resides in a small Connecticut town working at an insurance company. Where does the story of a free diving competition and dolphins fit?
For those that aren’t aware of what The Big Blue is about, I will briefly explain the premise. Jacques Mayol is a free diver who lost his father at a young age in a diving accident. He has a special bond with dolphins and the sea and is being studied by a scientist for the way his body reacts when it is in water. Enzo Molinari is a childhood friend and competitor who is now the world free-diving champion. He locates Jacques and asks him to compete against him. During the competition, Jacques meets insurance agent Johanna Baker (Rosanna rquette), who immediately falls in love with him. But Jacques is strange. His passion for the sea and, ultimately, his dead father cause him to withdraw into his own world and escape from the world he doesn’t understand. He often confides in the dolphins he visits and looks to these mammals for support. In his own way, he can, in fact, communicate with them.
In the ambiguous finale he chooses to leave our world behind. Sitting on a metal deck, he grasps a weight that will take him down to the depths of the ocean, where he can truly discover who he is. In a symbolic gesture, he hands Johanna a cord that will release the weight he is grasping and pull him under. Knowing this is the only way he will truly have peace, she pulls the cord and tells him to ” Go. Go and see my love.”
It’s a story I identify with because I, too, have felt like I’m from another world, mostly due to the fact that I am gay. Sometimes I don’t feel as if the goings on of everyday life have any effect or meaning for me. The average American way of life, or what is perceived as average, is foreign to me.
At one point in the film, Jacques shows Johanna a photograph of a dolphin and says, “This is my family. What kind of man has such a family?” Sometimes I feel the same. My friends are not all homosexual, but I feel that the gay community is really my home. That is my family. Obviously, what I like to do and how I choose to spend my time does not always fit into the stereotype of modern living. My open-minded values and nerdy likes are not always readily accepted by the masses. Mine is a hidden family with a totally different perspective that sometimes I am afraid of but ultimately understand. If I let myself compare that life to the life I’m expected to lead, I could very well say “What kind of man, has such a family?”
There are many people in my life that have been supportive throughout my growing process, and I am forever indebted to them. These are my “dolphin” friends. Whether they have stood by me during times of great turmoil or have given my self-esteem a boost, they have always been there to guide me even when I’ve royally screwed up.
Jacques Mayol is always looking for something; his dead father, a lover, a life he can believe in. Whatever it truly is, the audience never finds out, but we understand that he cannot live in our world. There are too many rules, too many people telling you what’s important. To Jacques, innocence and beauty are the most important things. And, of course, freedom. I, too, feel as he does, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m tired of the fighting, of the ignorant masses who seem to control society, and of the endless prejudging. I don’t understand it, and my resulting exasperation causes me to create my own world. Yet this place I’ve created is not complete, for like Jacques, I am still searching for where I fit in.
At the end of the film, Jacques’ oldest friend and opponent tragically dies after going too deep into the ocean. In his final moments, he says that “it’s much better down there.” With that statement, Jacques now knows what he’s wanted to do all his life. It is to “go and see.” He recognizes his need to shrug off the immediate and experience his true identity. Only then will he be free. Johanna, who has been with him throughout the competition and has grown disillusioned with this man who remains at a distance, sees his need. It’s not that Jacques doesn’t love her because in his own way, he does. But in the way society dictates he should love her, he can’t.
Many people have a desire to break the bounds that society dictates to us, so we can create a life we feel comfortable in. For Jacques, he knows that his life is in the sea, and he asks the dolphins for their permission to join them, just as I ask my friends to accept me for who I am and stand by me as I make decisions that might be new to them.
This is how I see The Big Blue – or maybe it is moreso the “Bigger Picture.” As the tagline reads, “Between what you know and what you wish lies the secret of The Big Blue.” And I think that much is true. It is where the secret of our lives lie.
And in the film’s final minutes, Jacques asks to be let go….to discover that secret. Johanna knows that it may not be what she wants, but it was what he needs. And like my family and friends have done and hopefully will always do, they have let me go. With an open heart and an open mind, they have done what Johanna did; pull the cord, let me explore, and tell me….”Go. Go and see my love.”