The EuropaCorp Way: Style and Storytelling in LUCY (Besson, 2014)

With Lucy, the French mini-major EuropaCorp has perhaps made the best French blockbuster of 2014. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious of the high-concept super productions made in France since the Lang Plan came into effect in 1989. And since this post is already hopelessly hyperbolic, I’ll even add this: it’s one of Luc Besson’s best movies, too, and a contender for the “event-film” of the summer.

Of course, all of this is to concede that the movie’s fairly flawed–you just have to ignore (in ways that critics haven’t been able to) the lapses in plausibility and logic and indulge in the naive headiness and baroque spectacle and unrelenting momentum of this tightly packed 90-minute show.

The script is simple enough–although the second act is like two or three mashed into one. Scarlett Johansson has an experimental drug explode inside her and she basically evolves into a superhuman being whose brain capacity exceeds the normal 5% and moves up and up–20%, 30%, etc. (See below for the act structure breakdown). But like many French blockbusters, especially EuropaCorp ones, the movie mashes genres and action styles. Here, we get a social problem drug film mashed with a triad gangster movie mashed with an arty cosmic sci-fi flick. It’s not quite what my friend Charlie Michael calls a “martial arts blockbuster,” but it does what other EuropaCorp movies do: mixes settings and movie styles and genres from the west with some from the east (like Wasabi and B13 and Taken). French blockbusters have brought the pastiche to a new level–let’s call it High Concept French Pastiche. 

What else is thrown in? We get a Hitchcockian Marnie shot as Johansson is shown from behind in a train station. To top Hitch, Besson makes Johansson go from blond to black hair in the same shot! (Yes, the drug eventually allows Johansson to manipulate matter.) And, at certain moments Lucy seems like Besson’s answer to The Tree of Life. A drug-induced cosmic journey. He even reinterprets Malick’s cutting style, especially in the first act, with the use of thematic insert shots and parallel cutting between Johansson (nervous about bringing a mysterious briefcase to a triad boss) and a gazelle being hunted by a cheetah. 

Does it all sit well together? Heck no. And that’s the pleasure of it, because the sparks created–the things the screenwriters and director and f/x people could play with as a result–all make the “unsettled” aspect of the film well worth it. Definitely see this on the big screen. The f/x–especially the cosmic ones–must be experienced on large format.

What else can we say about the plot? First, the movie doesn’t give a hoot about back story (which is not to say that there’s none at all). So for those like me who are tired of the back story fetish in contemporary film and TV and want movies that’ll just get on with it and leave something to the imagination, this one’s for you.

Second, as I said, the whole shebang is just 90 minutes. How does EuropaCorp make’em so tight? Simple. As I said, few scenes if any are devoted to back story, because the filmmakers know that you know what these characters are all about (why not celebrate this again). Also, EuropaCorp movies often have one act where several acts are collapsed into one (as I said before). But there’s also this: the protagonist will not have a goal linked to the formation of a heterosexual romance, so all that screen time devoted to developing relationships is completely (or almost completely) cut. Johansson’s no different–she’s a EuropaCorp hero like Neeson in Taken or Belle in B13. Only now they motivate this convention thematically: one of the effects of the increased brain capacity is less and less bodily desire.
Act Structure:
Lucy breaks down into three large chunks (almost precisely 30-min. apiece): 

Act 1: Lucy’s (Scarlett Johansson) goal is to give a briefcase with mysterious contents to a Taiwanese triad boss.

>>>Turning points: the boss has a sack of drugs inserted into her abdomen and she’s beaten, so the sack bursts, releasing the drug into her bloodstream.

Act 2: in this act, she realizes that the drug is increasing her brain capacity. She develops numerous goals, here–to get to a hospital and find out what the effects of the drug are; establish contact with the Morgan Freeman character, the world’s top evolutionary biologist, who’ll be able to help her out (she’ll share her developing knowledge with him); to find the four other poor souls who had sacks stitched into their gut; and get to Paris to collect the sacks.

>>>Turning points: with the help of a Parisian cop, she gets all four sacks and sets out (on a thrilling, CGI-enhanced car chase that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen) to get to Freeman.

Act 3: in this act, the Parisian police protect her from an invading group of triad thugs as she injects herself with all four remaining sacks and her brain capacity increases to 60, then 80%. She time-travels through human history, back to the dinosaurs, to the original “Lucy,” and then beyond. Does she reach 100% brain capacity, and if so, what are the effects? Go to a theater near you…