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‘Valerian’ Is France’s Most Expensive Film Ever. Luc Besson Says ‘Who Cares?’

Fast forward to the 1990s. Mr. Besson — having already established his maximalist, big-hearted style with “The Big Blue,” “La Femme Nikita” and “Subway” — is working on “The Fifth Element,” the offbeat, campy 1997 sci-fi action movie starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. (The New York Times critic Janet Maslin gave it a skeptical review, with the headline “World Saved by a Nude Babe? Cool!”)

Mr. Mézières, who helped create the look of “The Fifth Element,” suggested Mr. Besson adapt “Valerian” for film. Mr. Besson reread the comic. “I came back and said: ‘It’s not possible. I don’t have the technology or the experience.’”

Time went by. A decade ago, he bought the rights from an American studio. It was only after James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, “Avatar,” that Mr. Besson realized technology had advanced enough for him to attempt “Valerian.”


Anne Parillaud in “La Femme Nikita.”


“James Cameron offered to the entire community to do whatever we want now; thanks to him,” Mr. Besson said.

In “Valerian,” which is also in 3-D, the hero, played by Dane DeHaan (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), and Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, race through actual and virtual worlds to save Planet Alpha and ultimately help a species known as the Pearls, who lost six million of their kind when their own planet was destroyed. Yes, six million. “I like to suggest things without pointing them out,” Mr. Besson said about the Holocaust reference. “I think it’s a good start of a conversation for people who watch the movie and especially for parents and their kids.”

But “Valerian” isn’t gloomy. It’s not scary like “Alien” or pensive like “Arrival.” The soundtrack includes David Bowie and Bob Marley. Clive Owen plays a bad guy, Ethan Hawke a space-age brothel owner, Herbie Hancock the minister of defense, and John Goodman does the voice for a creature with six nostrils.

“There are so many sci-fi films that are so dark — it’s raining, the aliens are the villains,” Mr. Besson said. “The future is a blank page. Why do we project so much pessimism on it? Why not at least try to say: ‘Maybe there’s peace in the future. Maybe I can have a bunch of friends who are aliens.’”


Bruce Willis in “The Fifth Element.”

Columbia Tri-Star Pictures

Mr. Besson’s film seems aimed to please, and to get noticed across platforms. The publicity notes point out how many Instagram followers Ms. Delevingne has (now more than 40 million), while Rihanna has 75 million Twitter followers. Mr. Besson said that social media clout wasn’t a factor in his casting decisions. “I discovered that after,” he said. “The main thing for me is to choose the right person for the part.”

Really? “For his whole life, Besson has been ahead of everyone in France on how to communicate about a film,” said Geoffrey Le Guilcher, a French journalist who wrote a 2016 unauthorized biography, “Luc Besson: The Man Who Wanted to Be Loved.”

To help finance “Valerian,” Fundamental Films, a Chinese company, acquired a large stake in Mr. Besson’s EuropaCorp production company. The film was produced by Virginie Besson-Silla, Mr. Besson’s wife, and about 2,000 workers were involved, including those who focused on the special effects. “There’s basically three actors, and the rest are aliens,” Mr. Besson said. “So you don’t even know where to start. There is an entire scene in two parallel worlds at the same time, and the hero has his arm in one and his body in the another one.”

After years of storyboarding, he shot the film in 20 weeks last year, entirely at the Cité du Cinéma. To make “Valerian” in France, and not elsewhere with cheaper labor, Mr. Besson lobbied the French government to change the country’s tax credit system to allow films not in the French language to receive a tax break. But he ruffled a few feathers when most of the film’s budget was spent outside the country for special effects, including some by Industrial Light & Magic, the California company behind the visual effects for “Star Wars,” and Weta, the New Zealand outfit that also worked on “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.


Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy.”

Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures

“There were 45 shots without special effects, and there were 2,744 with special effects,” Mr. Besson said.

French distributors grumble that Mr. Besson’s films — like “Lucy,” his 2014 English-language blockbuster starring Scarlett Johansson — skew French box-office ratings, since he wildly outperforms every other French director. In years when he doesn’t have a film, French box-office revenues plummet.

Mr. Besson, who lives in Los Angeles, has always straddled two worlds. “There’s a part of me that’s French and loves my country, and there’s a part that isn’t French,” he said. “Every time I see something big and I like it, I want to say, ‘Congratulations.’ In France, they hate you for that. If you succeed at something they’ll say, ‘Yeah, his parents probably have money,’ or ‘You probably cheat.’ But maybe he woke up earlier and worked more? No, it’s not possible.”

In France, Mr. Besson has been in the news more for his activities as a businessman than as a director. He had the idea for the Cité du Cinéma — which houses nine private film studios and a public film school — as a one-stop shop to rival the Pinewood Studios in Britain or Cinecittà in Rome. EuropaCorp rents space in the Cité and is an investor in the studio, along with a consortium of French banks. Since the Cité opened in 2012, around 30 productions have been filmed there, of which Mr. Besson directed three and EuropaCorp produced nine. The studio’s director, Brigitte Segal, said she was satisfied with its occupancy, which she projected at 81 percent for 2017.

Since 2013, the French authorities have been investigating possible misuse of public funds in connection with the Cité du Cinéma’s initial financing and setup, and several officials have already been fined small amounts for mismanaging public money used in the project. (In an interview, a spokesman for EuropaCorp, Régis Lefebvre, called the fines “nothing.”)

Mr. Besson is “a bit of an adventurer in superproductions without a very strong artistic vision,” said Isabelle Regnier, a film critic for Le Monde. “He’s a French mogul with no equivalent. You can love or hate his Cité du Cinéma, but it’s something very impressive,” she said. “There’s a very American side in his failures and successes and how he’s always bouncing back.”

“Valerian” might not win over French critics, but Mr. Besson has global ambitions for it. He said that he wanted audiences to see it as an escapist fantasy. “If they can forget everything for two hours, and live another life for two hours, that would be perfect for me,” he said, back in his office, where his coffee table was piled high with Valerian comics. “I want them to be drunk with the story, the images. I want them to lose their minds.”

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