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(photo credit: Daniel Cohen)
When the French director Luc Besson arrived 15 minutes late to a Tel Aviv press conference Friday morning, he looked almost exactly like viewers of his films - admirers and detractors alike - might have expected. Sporting a scruffy beard and a t-shirt promoting his latest movie, Besson appeared significantly more youthful than his 47 years, and a lot more like the prodigious youngster he undoubtedly once was.
The director of films including Nikita, Le'on and The Fifth Element, Besson has always come across through his movies as something of a precocious teenager, deeply enamored of his ability to oversee grown-up projects but not always capable of keeping his imagination and visual impulses in check. ("World saved by a nude babe? Cool!" was the headline of one American review of The Fifth Element.)
Besson almost never gets a uniformly positive review - his films rely on too many faulty plot lines and uneven characters - but the Paris-born director's exuberant creativity has made him an international standout ever since Le Dernier Combat (1983) earned him a prestigious Cesar nomination in France for best directorial debut.
With a cinematic resume full of assassins, hit men and, well, nude babes, Besson wouldn't seem an obvious choice to direct a big-budget children's film. But a children's movie is precisely what prompted the two-time BAFTA nominee to make his first trip to Israel last week, a 24-hour visit that left little time for anything but lunch on the Mediterranean and the Herzliya premiere of Arthur and the Invisibles, a fantasy combining live action and computer-generated imagery.
"When I go to see a movie, I want to travel," he says, not referring to the flight from Paris to Tel Aviv. "It doesn't mean special effects - it means I want to see something extraordinary."
He uses the "e" word several more times during the press conference, describing the urban setting of 1994's Leon (known as The Professional to American moviegoers) as relatively mundane but again using "extraordinary" to label the friendship that emerges between the film's hit man protagonist and the young girl next door (the Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman in her movie debut).
Besson's decision to make Arthur and the Invisibles was met with a skepticism bordering on alarm back in France - "Journalists in my country are like, 'What are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing?" Besson says with a laugh - but the fanciful world explored in Arthur doesn't seem such a stretch if placed in the appropriate context.
Though frequently driven by action and violence, Besson's cinematic universe also runs on imagination and the sort of European whimsy that makes it impossible to define the director by his French or Hollywood projects. ("The world's most attention-getting man without a country" is how The New York Times' Janet Maslin once described him.)
Arthur, which debuts in Israel on December 14, tells the story of a young boy who joins the world of the Minimoys, a group of creatures so tiny they can't be seen by regular people. Based on the first of several children's books Besson penned about the character, Arthur has obvious parallels with Alice in Wonderland, the similarly grown-up children's tale the filmmaker cites as his favorite. Parts of the story are based on "moments of loneliness" Besson experienced during his own childhood, as is the close relationship between the title character and his grandmother, who at one point reassures her small grandson that "there is a place where courage isn't measured by how tall you are, but by the size of your heart."
The film's young target audience has allowed Besson to indulge in the fundamental kindness of many of his characters - something he's clearly wanted to do but has been unable to achieve in most of his adult scripts. (His affection for his characters has played out perhaps most clearly in his romantic life - Besson's first two marriages were to Anne Parillaud and Milla Jovovich, the female leads in Nikita and The Fifth Element.)
Besson speaks with convincing warmth about his various films' youngest stars, singling out Arthur's Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Portman, with whom he was originally supposed to make his first trip to Israel on a promotional tour for Le'on.
Film, he says, is like a passport, allowing people around the world to get a sense of different countries even if they don't have the means to travel. He isn't fond of categorizing movies by their director's nationality, making a dismissive, mildly grotesque noise when asked about French critics' claims that he has "Americanized" his movies.
"Action," he says in reference to his own films, "doesn't belong to America," though he's quick to clarify that there isn't anything wrong with Hollywood's dominance in the genre.
His own movies, he says, share the most in common with Japanese films, a point which leads him later to recall his experience as the head of the jury at the 2002 Tokyo International Film Festival, where the Israeli drama Broken Wings was awarded the festival's Grand Prix award.
"Movies are the cheapest way of doing publicity for your country," he says, noting the impact of Broken Wings' Tokyo victory early in its international run. "They're cheap, and they go everywhere."
Originally scheduled to stop in Beirut after his Tel Aviv visit, Besson says his Lebanon trip was cancelled because of security fears stemming from the growing conflict between the country's government and Hizbullah.
"I was happy to come here, and I would have been happy to go there," he says, adding that he would have liked his Middle East trip to "remind people that we're all the same... deeply, deeply the same."
But Besson doesn't feel it's his place to lecture anyone on how to bring about Middle East peace, returning instead to the subject of children - specifically, the challenges that await his five-year-old daughter and her multi-racial group of playmates back in Paris. Recalling the religious and ethnic tensions that have roiled French society in recent years, he pauses momentarily to consider their effect on the same sort of child he's celebrating in his current film.
"It's terrible to see with time how they learn to hate each other," he says. "It's our fault.