There was a point in my early cinephilia where I would call Luc Besson’s Leon my favorite film. That was about five, perhaps ten years, ago and my opinion on the film hasn’t so much changed as it has relented: it’s a film I adored at the time but no longer have a particularly strong affinity to. I grew to resent its excesses: too much violence, too much plodding, and it’s too awkward in its delivery. The film didn’t change per se, but I did. Still, there aren’t very many films like Leon, and for that matter, there aren’t very many films like Lucy. It’s the Besson touch, so to speak, where the director’s flights of fantasy include violent shoot-outs coupled with strange narrative backdrops. In Leon, it was the odd pairing of an assassin and a young girl who looks to carry his mantle. The bizarre sexual tension between the two was scrubbed out in the American version of the film (dubbed The Professional in the states) but it remains a refreshingly odd film that, now at twenty years old, remains resoundingly queer.
Besson isn’t especially concerned with sexual politics in Lucy, but he does shown an affinity toward plights of existential consideration. Besson’s gambit pays off as he crafts a summer blockbuster of considerable density - Lucy is a film that concerns itself with how the world is shaped and how humanity functions as a primitive component to shaping that world. In a film of dualities, Besson’s typical violent flourishes are juxtaposed with some rather bonkers, though interesting, philosophical inquiries.
The film opens with one of many allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a dawn of man sequence introduces a Neanderthal. The sequence shifts, in Besson’s unusual though welcome zippy way, to Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) fending off requests from her boyfriend to deliver a suitcase to a ruthless Korean executive. Handcuffed to the case and unaware of its contents, Lucy proceeds with the delivery with obvious reservations. Her reluctance is warranted as she descends into a world of drug trafficking, where a bag of synthetic drugs is sewn into her abdomen. Following a violent exchange, the bag of drugs bursts into her system, affording her an increasingly wide array of superhuman abilities and growing intellectual capacities.
The silliness of the plotting is afforded a measure of nuance through Besson’s blunt filmmaking style. The aforementioned scene where Lucy is accosted by Korean gangsters is intercut with scenes of a cheetah stalking its antelope pray. It’s a ridiculous but uncommon method of cutting that takes a typical scene and gives it unexpected novelty. The same process repeats itself constantly throughout the film, where Besson is clever in the way he cuts scenes together with images of the primal.
At a lean 90 minutes, Lucy is a film of perpetual movement. The film moves too quickly to call attention to its narrative absurdity, utilizing Johansson’s physicality as a means of cutting through the silliness. As was the case in Under the Skin, Besson utilizes Johansson’s physical presence for maximum effect - there are few other actresses who can evoke both empathy and fear within a single shot, particularly in close-up. This skill becomes vital in Lucy’s “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence, where the actress must embrace the emotionally vacant nature of her character while still arousing a sense of awe to the images she’s seeing. The role is, despite its narrative and genre trappings, a complex one.
Like most summer blockbusters, there’s an emphasis on loudness and Lucy is no exception. Besson’s violent tendencies are there, right down to the rocket launcher in the film’s climax. But there aren’t very many contemporary blockbusters that ask the sort of questions that Lucy probes. From citations to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Lucy can best be described as a very strange film. It’s at constant odds with itself, never really making much sense, but just bizarre enough to keep you interested. It never realizes its potential one way or the other (as either a straight-laced science fiction film or an existential study) but it sort of half-asses both to become its own unique little thing.