Lights and arch covered in blue gelatine and a roll-up projection screen that was 24 metres wide and 11 metres high. In May 1988, the Grand Rex cinema in Paris vamped itself up to dive into 'Le Grand Bleu', which had just opened the Cannes Film Festival. There was a rock concert atmosphere. Teenagers sang the theme music, lit their cigarette lighters during the underwater scenes, and awarded the film the Okapi d’Or (Golden Okapi)! A man with greying hair and a weather-beaten complexion had made the journey from the Caicos Islands in the Caribbean for the occasion. Once in Paris, he spent his time having showers. 'I'm having withdrawal symptoms', he said. 'The sea is my drug.' His name was Jacques Mayol and he used to be the world free diving champion. He was the hero who inspired Luc Besson. The story of a man who prefers dolphins to women (in this instance, Rosanna Arquette), diving down to depths of up to 105 metres with his lungs compressed like table tennis balls. 'He used to say that the human being came from the sea and that he could live there', remembers Jean-Marc Barr, who played this James Bond of the seas.
Three months before filming began, the as-yet-unknown actor replaced Christophe Lambert, who had given up this extremely demanding physical feat. So Barr left for training in Le Lavandou with Jean Reno, who played his nice Sicilian rival, Enzo Maiorca and Besson. In the morning, the three men used to jump into an inflatable dinghy and dive down to 30 metres, ten times a day. 'At that depth, with one single breath of air, we are very well acquainted with our own insignificance', commented Barr. 'The metaphysical emotion of each human being is really there.' Over four months they filmed underwater all over the world - Porquerolles, Corsica, the Greek islands, Sicily, the Maldives, and the Bahamas, as well as in Tignes in the Alps for a session of under-ice diving. 'We couldn't have made the film today', smiles Barr. 'We couldn't have got insurance cover'. One night, the mistral blew up, and the actor had to do five descents in a row. Down there, he was given a pressure regulator, but water got into his nose and filled his lungs. This was a dreadful fright to which had just been added a power failure on the trailer. Everything is black at the bottom of the sea. Luc Besson, as the son of diving instructors, decided to use an underwater camera which was sufficiently easy to handle to enable him to follow the movement of the divers. However, one day the torpedo on which the camera was mounted got jammed, and Besson began to go round and round in the water without being able to stop. Dolphins arrived on the scene. 'It was as if you were an old crate of a plane and the Patrouille de France (precision aerobatic team) was coming straight at you!', he said when the film was released. In order to film the dolphins in clear water, they were transported by air on a foam rubber mattress so as not to crush their lungs. They listened to Debussy, their favourite composer, as well as to Bach and Mozart.
At the age of 29, after 'Le Dernier Combat' and 'Subway', Luc Besson had finally fulfilled his teenage dream in 35mm Scope film; a dream which went back to when he was 14 and he visited the small Marineland in Porte Maillot. 'As soon as I took out my camera, there was a dolphin who was tilting his head to the side.' And the Grand Bleu generation recognises in Jacques Mayol its hero, a man whom Serge Daney described as 'the postmodern hero par excellence, that of mass democratic individualism: a body without organs, without sex, without language, and without desire, programmed to carry out a single movement - an attractive automaton'. Our destiny of man-dolphin.
Maroussia DUBREUIL for SOFILM