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'The Big Blue' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 20, 1988

When a man's gotta go back to the womb, a man's gotta go back to the womb. Take director Luc Besson.

The Frenchman explores the salty reaches of the sea, plunging deeply into amniotic excesses in "The Big Blue," his first English-language film. Sometimes a snorkel is just a snorkel, true, but Besson is given to womblike settings, as in his underground thriller "Subway." Here, as there, he rarely comes up for air.

Inspired, he says, by a three-hour boyhood ride with a dolphin, Besson ponders the cosmos through his free-diving hero Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr). The taciturn young Frenchman, whose diver father drowned, enjoys a rivalry with a childhood friend, the boisterous Italian Enzo (Jean Reno). They astonish a scientist with their dolphinlike heart rates and use of oxygen.

Jacques, who carries photos of his dolphin "family" in his wallet, meets an insurance claims adjuster, Joanna (Rosanna Arquette), while diving in a frozen Peruvian lake. "He's from another world," warns the scientist. Nevertheless, she follows Jacques to scenic locales on the world championship diving circuit. As the competition with Enzo grows fiercer, the scientist (now in Sicily) makes ominous noises.

Joanna, who has abandoned a career in New York, plaintively tells Jacques she wants to have his baby. Poor Arquette has an absurd part, desperately seeking Scuba. Barr, chisel-cheeked and enigmatic, seems a promising actor, but Jacques is a pretty limited guy. "What was he like when he was little?" Joanna asks Enzo. "Little," says Enzo. And now he's Big, a child-man with the brain of a clam.

Inevitably Jacques must tread the water of life, his choice as old as the primordial stew. Will he become a husband or remain a mamma's boy? Will he be a man or a fish? Will he follow the cord that connects the boat to the bottom of the sea? Or will the giggly, overwrought but fetching Joanna persuade him to towel off for eternity?

Or will he tell her to go fish?

The subtext is easy to follow; it's the screenplay that's impossible. Written by Besson and incoherently adapted by American Robert Garland, it's as skimpy as the whiskers on an eel. What it has are ambitions, more exotic locations than a James Bond movie, beaucoup dolphins and French cinematic chichi. Les Flippers of the nouvelle vague.

The Big Blue is rated PG and is playing at area theaters.

Copyright The Washington Post

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