The Family (2013)
Dismissed by many on its release as weak, one-joke fare with obnoxious characters who commit even more obnoxious acts while in hiding in the north of France, “The Family” fits well with Besson’s work as director/writer, with one amendment. Here, he has made a comedy/drama rather than a drama with humour while turning his usual pretext on its head by having his group of criminal outcasts refuse to concede to social pressure and continue to impose their will on society – no matter the consequences.
Besson’s film remains an account of a witness-protected family supposedly trying (not very hard) to find a place in society, and once again society is portrayed as very imperfect. Few of the family’s new acquaintances offer anything approaching a warm welcome, unless it is to try to take advantage of them or dismiss them as ignorant American incomers.
As a mob family on the run, pursued by other mob figures out to kill them, the Blake family (father Fred, Robert De Niro, mother Maggie, Michelle Pfeiffer) shows some integrity (in the form of unity) in the face of adversity, this time represented by numerous gangster-clad mobsters out to gain revenge on them.
There is certainly conflict between the family and society at large as the Blakes refuse to bow to any pressure, and normally resort to direct action (or violence) to deal with situations and assert themselves.
Personal development is conspicuous by its absence – daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) seems to be on the brink of such development as she falls in love, but she is left broken-hearted and reverts to type fairly quickly. Son Warren (John D’Leo) simply applies and develops his criminal skills, while father Fred and mother Maggie remain exactly the same throughout the film. However, I think Besson is playing with conventions established in his previous films and sets out to create “in jokes” in this film.
As detractors have pointed out, it is difficult to have any sympathy for this family as they respond with excessive aggression to any perceived lack of respect. Belle deserves a modicum of sympathy as her maths tutor uses her and dumps her, but that situation seems to fizzle out. Their son is badly beaten by bullies, but this appears to have been contrived to allow the son to gain his revenge.
Fred and Maggie deal violently with minor transgressions against them, thus doing away with sympathy we might have felt for them had they been in serious danger or under threat.
Curiously, when the mobsters arrive to kill the family we remain on their side – they are outnumbered and through the comic style of violence meted out on those who have done wrong to them, we can understand their standpoint, but now the danger is “real”.
Besson has painted a strange and difficult picture of society where everyone seems to want to take advantage of this family (with only a few exceptions), and where we are supposed to have sympathy for a group of psychopaths who respond violently to each offence committed against them.
In playing with his own conventions, I fear M. Besson has omitted the very elements that made his previous films work so well – change and personal development, and with them the emotional engagement of the audience. That said, there is a lot to enjoy in the film – the acting is of a high standard and there is no denying the comic impact of the family’s excessive reactions, but this does become somewhat repetitive and is probably not sufficient to carry the film.
While incorporating several well-established elements from previous films, “Lucy” is also something of a departure.
Society is once again shown to be in moral decline, with our heroine forced to act as a drug mule for some totally ruthless and bloodthirsty Japanese hoodlums who choose innocent “civilians” (apparently quite at random, thus emphasising and reinforcing their total lack of scruples and empathy), stash drugs in their intestines and threaten their families if they don’t comply with their demands to transport their goods across Europe.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a fairly typical intelligent and relatively innocent young woman, working toward a college qualification but not finding it particularly easy, happy to travel and expand her knowledge of the world and herself, trusting to some extent but wary of the unknown, seeking adventure but showing common sense and refusing to get involved in potentially dangerous situations. All of this we can gauge from her conversation with boyfriend Richard as he tries to persuade her to deliver an attaché case on his behalf. It transpires she is right to be wary of Richard who handcuffs the case to Lucy and gives her instructions on what to do next.
Needless to say, Lucy is quickly exposed to a nightmarish situation during which she displays very human terror and panic, the outcome of which is that she is knocked unconscious and awakes with the drugs implanted in her intestines.
All of the above has taken place in plush penthouse surroundings and given a veneer of civilisation by the polite instructions and organisation of “The Limey”. This is in direct contrast with Lucy’s surroundings after she is handed over to her “handlers” – a dingy basement where we meet the lower level enforcers for the hoodlums. One of her handlers makes unappreciated advances to Lucy who firmly rejects his interest, but in a fit of temper he kicks Lucy in her abdomen, causing the drugs to leak into her system.
So far, a fairly typical Besson film with numerous elements revisited, though on this occasion the heroine has been forced to join a most unpleasant element of society.
However, the main difference between this and Besson’s other fare is in the realm of personal development – the drug (CpH4) causes cells in Lucy’s body to “communicate” with one another, allowing her to develop brain usage and all the potential contained therein well beyond our normal 10%.
This is, in fact, something more akin to an inward-looking version of “2001, a Space Odyssey”.
With some scientific explanation provided by Morgan Freeman, we are led to believe that Lucy represents the (much accelerated) evolution of mankind as she develops use of her brainpower, gaining dominance of her own body, then the bodies of others, until ultimately achieving some kind of spiritual conversion and doing away with her body completely. All of this is set against a time limit (Lucy’s rapidly approaching death) and pursuit by the Japanese hoodlums who (understandably) want to regain their property.
Love in its traditional form is largely missing, but in its place is a love of knowledge and a desire to gain ever greater insight into the human adventure.
When considered in these terms, the film and its premise seem far-fetched and ridiculous, but Besson makes it all work! By giving it a quasi-scientific premise and by keeping it all human and laced with humour, Besson has made his investigation into the ultimate in personal development entertaining, intriguing and thought-provoking. At the same time as concocting a tale involving societal corruption and pursuit by immoral hoodlums, he has invited his audience to consider mankind’s potential and where we might end up by looking within ourselves in the ultimate quest for knowledge rather than travel ever farther afield.
It is worthy of note that despite the context of creation and evolution, no mention is made of God or religion.
Scarlett Johansson played Lucy very well, displaying very human reaction in the early part of the film in contrast with the cold and calculating Lucy driven by determination and a lust for knowledge after her “transformation”, yet retaining an essential human and vulnerable element.
All in all, this is a happy return to form and a worthy addition to Besson’s filmography.