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[deep water movie]‘The Big Blue’ takes a breathtaking dive into life’s big questions

  Released in 1988, The Big Blue is based on real-life free-diving frenemies, Frenchman Jacques Mayol, played by Jean-Marc Barr, and Italian Enzo Maiorca, renamed Enzo Molinari in the film, played by legendary Jean Reno. (Reno also stars alongside Natalie Portman in another Besson film, Leon: The Professional, now streaming at SBS On Demand.)?


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  The Big Blue became the highest grossing film of the 1980s in France. It’s easy to see why: even though it is heavily fictionalised, the men the characters are based on are fascinating. Jacques Mayol (1927–2001) was a free-diving legend. In 1976, he broke the 100-metre record, with a no-limits dive off the coast of Elba, Italy. During the dive Mayol’s heartbeat dropped from sixty to twenty seven beats per minute. This ‘mammalian diving reflex’, which is more noticeable in whales, seals and dolphins, is explored in the film. Meanwhile dare-devil Enzo Maiorca (1931–2016) defied medical experts by swimming to a depth of more than 91 metres in one breath and in 1988 set his final record at 101 metres.

  The Big Blue, Jean Reno

  Jean Reno as larger than life Enzo Molinari.

  Source: Fox Columbia TriStar Films

  The film features some of the most spectacular underwater cinematography ever captured, from its stunning locations in Greece, Italy and France. These gorgeously shot scenes would inspire any scaredy pants to don some scuba diving gear, leave the concrete jungle behind and explore the glorious world under the sea.?

  A mesmerising black and white tracking shot opens the film, spanning around the Greek Cyclades island of Amorgos, a feast for the eyes which takes in stunning footage of the monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, perched high on a mountain side, and the idyllic Agia Anna beach and Liveros Bay.

  These early scenes show Mayol and Maiorca as kids growing up in the 1960s. A terrible tragedy strikes Mayol’s father while diving, an accident that haunts Jacques throughout the film.Fast forward 20 years, and it transforms to colour, delving into the adult lives of the divers as they attempt to outdo each other in free-diving competitions.

  The Big Blue, Jean Reno, Jean-Marc Barr

  Enzo (Reno) and Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr).

  Source: Fox Columbia TriStar Films

  A young Rosanna Arquette co-stars as Jacques’ love interest, Johana. The pair meet in the Andes, Peru. Johana is travelling and Jacques is conducting scientific research in the icy waters. From the outset, Johana is enamoured with the Frenchman and their relationship forms an important aspect of the film. After returning home to New York, Johana travels to Sicily to seek out Jacques, competing in the free-diving world championships there against his old friend Enzo.

  The two characters are polar opposites. Jacques is quiet, softly spoken and humble while Enzo is a loud bombastic extrovert. Back in the real world, Enzo Maiorca managed to block the release of The Big Blue in Italy until 2002, a year after Mayol’s death. He believed the film portrayed him as an uneducated Sicilian, and ordered certain lines of dialogue be removed, before the film was finally shown in Italy.

  It is true that Maiorca’s character is perhaps in today’s parlance a symbol of toxic masculinity. He wears his macho bravado and overconfidence about his diving abilities on his sleeve. His misogynistic behaviour towards women is evident when he asks Johana, ‘Have you been to Tahiti?’ When she answers no, Enzo replies, ‘I’ll take you there. We will live in the sun; you will cook fresh fish and we will make love under the coconut tree.’ Johana laughs and says, ‘Hey, how about you do the cooking.’ Meanwhile the softly spoken Jacques cuts a much more likeable figure and is more of a mystery. Enzo insightfully instructs Johana ‘not to think of him as a human being. He is from another world.’

  The Big Blue, Jean-Marc Barr

  Dreamy Jacques (Barr).

  Source: Fox Columbia TriStar Films

  What Jacques and Enzo do have in common though is their love of free diving. While Enzo also loves the good life, including food, women, fancy red boats and breaking records, Jacques prefers life in the water, not for the glory of the competition, but for the stillness and peace he feels there. Diving is where he luxuriates. He prefers swimming with dolphins over partying and even spending time with Johana.

  While the underwater scenes are exhilarating,?the most enduring aspect of?The Big Blue?is the existential questions it asks. Trying to find the meaning of life and death at 122 metres would give anyone the bends, but it’s at this depth that Jacques searches for answers.?Does the life?that is promised above the water, which is represented by Johana as love, family and ‘fullness’,?compete with the oneness he feels when diving?

  When Johana attempts to find out why Jacques is enamoured with diving, she doesn’t get the reply she wants. ‘It’s like slipping without falling. The hardest thing is when you hit the bottom because you have to find a good reason to get back up, and I have a hard time finding one.’

  The Big Blue, Jean Reno, Rosanna Arquette

  Enzo and Johana (Rosanna Arquette).

  Source: Fox Columbia TriStar Films

  Tragedy strikes again when Enzo attempts to break Jacques’ record. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, the Frenchman is reeling from another loss. Lying in bed caught in a fever dream, the ocean suddenly appears above him, creeping in on him. As he looks up, he is caught between his current life, pain and loss, and an alternative world where there are dolphins and the sun is piercing through the clear crystal blue waters. Upon waking, Jacques makes a fateful choice to get back in the water. Johana implores him to stay on earth. ‘There is nothing down there, it’s dark, it’s cold. I’m real and I exist.’ But Jacques won’t be persuaded. ‘I’ve got to go and see.’

  The Big Blue airs on SBS World Movies at 9.30pm on Monday 26 July.

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