by Trace Palmer
[CB: This is a guest post by Trace Palmer, a student from Washington University in St. Louis. He began this research in a course I teach, French Film Culture. His entry elaborates on a point I briefly made in a previous post, where I argued that in the EuropaCorp film Lucy (Besson, 2014) the protagonist does 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.” Below, Palmer presents a detailed and illuminating analysis of this aspect of EuropaCorp blockbusters. A short bio of Palmer follows the essay.]
Romance, as we all know, is a firmly established staple of popular cinema. In her 1999 book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, Kristin Thompson reminds us that most Hollywood narratives contain one line of plot action that will tend to follow the development of a romantic (heterosexual) couple. She points out, moreover, that the protagonist tends to form romantic goals (and perhaps one or two others) early on in the film, almost always within the first act (that is, during the first 20-30 minutes of screen time) (p.15). Romantic plots are one of the most prevalent aspects of classical film narration, a feature that has been reliably present across genres and across time.
But do all mainstream films follow the “boy meets girl” formula?
Like any artistic tradition, Hollywood cinema isn’t monolithic. Thompson acknowledges that some of major productions, especially of the action genre– she gives the example of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) – do not contain romance (p.42).
These tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. What about other popular cinemas?
The blockbusters produced by the French mini-major EuropaCorp, under the leadership of Luc Besson, stand out for their consistent refusal to conform to this tenet of classical cinematic storytelling even while producing largely mainstream fare that seeks to compete against Hollywood-based studios at the box office. In this blog, I’d like to examine three EuropaCorp franchises (all of which are more or less ongoing)—the Transporter (2002-2008), District B 13 (2004-2009) and Taken (2008-2012) series—and show how these movies, especially those written by Luc Besson himself, revise or reject the Hollywood convention of establishing a heterosexual romance as one of the male protagonist’s main goals. Quite remarkably, the French studio is making mainstream fare that includes a strong, masculine hero, but this hero is consistently depicted in narratives that suppress, rather than flaunt, male-female coupling.
But how? And why?
EuropaCorp Romance: Three Kinds
The ways that these films suppress romance can be broken down into three distinct types of plot:
1) The Reluctant Romance Plot– This plot type differs from most Hollywood movies in that the protagonist never actively establishes the goal of forming a romantic bond. Rather, he or she passively enters into romantic relationships proposed by other characters. Moreover, the formation of the relationship comes late in the narrative arc. In the examples I discuss below, the protagonist’s romantic interest is not clearly established until after the midway point in the film.
2) The Denied Romance Plot – In this type of non- or minimal-romance plot, the protagonists deny themselves the possibility of romance for some greater moral cause. In these films, the preservation of a stable family unit is the greater goal the protagonists strive for, even when that family unit does not include the protagonist himself.
3) The Elided Romance Plot – This type of plot describes those films that acknowledge that the protagonist has a romantic interest without devoting screen time to the development of that relationship. In films containing an elided romance, the relationship is static and any romantic encounters are isolated to a single scene and a single act.
Let’s now examine each franchise in light of these plot types.
The Reluctant Romance
The Transporter (dir. Leterrier/Yuen, co-written by Besson, 2002), the first film in the Transporter series, is characterized by fast cars and flying fists, with minimal emphasis placed on the main character’s romantic wants and desires. While the protagonist Frank Martin (Jason Statham) does form a romantic bond with a female character, he never actively pursues the romance, and the potential for the romance does not become clear in the first act. Moreover, the goal of romance is never clearly established as one of Frank’s primary objectives at any point in the film. Lai (Qi Shu), Frank’s romantic interest, does not even appear on screen until roughly twenty minutes into the film when Frank decides to take a peak inside the bag he has been contracted to transport (00:19:14). Although Lai’s appearance is accompanied by soothing, mellow music, the inconsistency with the onscreen action – Lai screams while Frank tries to cut a hole in the duck tape over her mouth to give her a drink of soda – is unexpectedly self-conscious and becomes downright ironic when Lai coquettishly sips from the Orangina bottle as the seductive bass kicks up on the soundtrack (00:20:25-00:20:28). After a short scene in which Lai attempts to escape, Frank chases her down, puts her back in the black bag in his trunk, and delivers her as if he had never opened the package, maintaining complete emotional distance from Lai.
The first act ends with a bang, literally, when Frank narrowly avoids being blown up by a car bomb about 28 minutes into the film. This event establishes Frank’s new goal: to get revenge for the attempt on his life. This is the reason that Frank returns to the house where he delivered Lai, not to rescue the girl but to punish the men who blew up his car. After exacting his revenge, Frank steals a car from the compound and drives off, unaware that Lai has hidden herself in the back seat. Although in this scene Frank ultimately ends up saving Lai from her kidnappers, it is clear that he never set out with the intention to do so.
As the movie progresses, a relationship does develop between Frank and Lai, but Frank somewhat passively enters into this relationship after Lai’s constant, active romantic pursuit. After about forty minutes of run time, well into the second act and nearing the halfway point of the 92-minute film, Frank remains relatively resistant to Lai’s advances (00:38:42-00:40:02). In one scene, Frank descends the stairs to discover that Lai has handpicked flowers from the garden and used them to decorated a vase, prepared both coffee and tea – she explains, “I didn’t know if you liked coffee or tea, so I made both” (00:39:07-00:39:10) – and baked homemade madeleines for breakfast. Frank remains silent and looks slightly puzzled as Lai rushes around the kitchen explaining everything she has done. After a full minute of Lai talking without any response from Frank, Frank snatches the coffee pot away from her reach and states matter-of-factly, “I like it quiet in the morning”, indicating that he has grown tired of Lai’s jabbering (00:39:50-00:39:54).
Frank thus remains reluctant and resistant in the face of romance well into the second act. And the relationship he forms with Lai only really begins to gel after the midpoint of the film when her incessant attempts at courtship, and decision to offer herself sexually to Frank as compensation for the trouble she has caused him, leads to a sexual encounter. But even at this point it is not clear if Frank has a romantic attachment to Lai or if he is merely engaging in meaningless sex (00:50:40). Lai comes across as the active agent, here, although certainly not in a positive way; while Frank is depicted as the object of pursuit, rather than the romantic pursuer.
This, I would argue, distinguishes him from the typical Hollywood action hero. Thompson writes, “Hollywood protagonists tend to be active, to seek out goals and pursue them rather than having goals simply thrust upon them” (p.14). Unlike James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Aragorn, this male action hero displays his masculinity by denying, rather than seeking, romance.
Transporter 3 (dir. Megaton; co-written by Besson, 2008) depicts a romance that develops in much the same way. Due to the highly episodic nature of the Transporter series, the chronological relation between this film and the first Transporter is unclear, and characters from earlier movies in the series do not recur and are not referred to, with the notable exception of the protagonist Frank Martin and his friend, Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand). Frank does not continue to develop his prior romantic relationships in subsequent films but rather moves on; after the first film, Lai is never again mentioned. At the beginning of Transporter 3 Frank is ostensibly a single man without any preexisting romantic attachment and therefore available to form a new romantic bond, once again with the girl he must transport. Just like in The Transporter, Frank does not establish the goal of fulfilling a romantic relationship with Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) within the first act of the film, nor does he ever actively pursue a relationship with her. He enters into the relationship cautiously, initially rejecting Valentina’s romantic propositions and only later giving in to get her to cooperate with him.
Although Frank initially takes the active role in establishing communication with Valentina, once her romantic intentions become clear the characters swap roles and Frank repels Valentina’s advances, even as they become less and less subtle. With forty minutes left in the one hour and forty-four minute film, Frank asks Valentina why she keeps making advances on him. She responds, “I want to feel sex one more time before I die, don’t you?” as she leans in from the passenger seat toward Frank (01:01:38-01:01:43). Frank sighs, furrows his brow, pushes away her hand and briefly turns his face away from her, before turning back to ask, “What is it with you and dying?” completely sidestepping the sexual proposition and clearly indicating that he has no interest in having sex with her (01:03:30-01:03:32). She questions why Frank keeps rejecting her, and eventually exclaims, “You’re the gay!” to which Frank responds, “Nope, I am not ‘the gay’” (01:02:04-01:02:09). By calling into question Frank’s sexual identity, the film itself acknowledges Frank’s seeming lack of sexual drive, setting him apart, in an overt way, from the archetypal Hollywood male protagonist.
The only factor that eventually motivates Frank to kiss Valentina is his desire to get his car keys back from her. After taking his keys, she says, “Come on, Frank Martin. You want keys? I want [you to] strip,” clearly vocalizing Frank’s motivation for taking off his shirt moments later (01:04:39-01:04:47). Frank grudgingly complies, at which point Valentina says, “New deal: kiss me for the keys” (01:05:22-01:05:25). After a few pecks that Valentina finds unsatisfactory, Frank kisses her passionately, allowing him to finally fulfill his goal of getting his keys back. Like the first Transporter movie, Frank does eventually fall for romance, this time with Valentina; but also like in the first film, this relationship is not established as a goal in the first act and he plays a passive role in the formation of the relationship, only reluctantly reciprocating the female’s advances on him.
The Denied Romance
Whereas The Transporter and Transporter 3 both show Frank entering into some form of romantic relationship, albeit reluctantly and late into the films’ narrative arcs, in Transporter 2 (dir. Leterrier; co-written by Besson, 2005) Frank Martin never establishes a heterosexual romance. There are only three female characters that Frank interacts with in the entire film, and two of them are overtly coded as antagonists. The first female character appears only in the opening scene of the movie as she attempts to steal Frank’s car. The second female antagonist is one of the principle villains in the story, and her constant attempts on Frank’s life stifle any potential for romance. That leaves Audrey Billings (Amber Valletta), the mother of the boy who Frank seeks to rescue in his primary goal in the film, as the only female character that could possibly be of romantic interest to Frank. However, Frank shows no interest in forming a romantic relationship with Audrey despite her attempts to seduce him, presumably due to the fact that she has a husband. (Once again, a female character in this series shows a willingness to transgress social norms and decorum and submit to him entirely in the hopes of becoming the object of his attention and desire.) Frank’s unwillingness to help Audrey commit adultery reveals him to be a strongly moral character, motivated more by the pursuit of what he perceives to be right than by his own sexual or romantic desires.
Thirteen minutes into the film, Audrey appears at Frank’s house and attempts to seduce him. Frank explicitly denies her advances, saying only, “I can’t” (00:14:03). Later in the same scene, as Audrey leaves Frank’s house, she expresses her gratitude to him, “Thank you, Frank. For the time, and the respect. I think it’s what I needed the most” (00:14:37-00:14:48). Intriguingly, Audrey thanks Frank for being respectful enough to not let her tempt him, a situation that presents Frank as a strong, stoic protagonist who has somehow transcended the need for sex as well as romantic love. Audrey thanks Frank for choosing the morally correct course of action despite the temptation he may have felt.
So, how can we explain Frank’s reluctance to enter into romantic relationships in the first and third Transporter movies? The second film perhaps provides the answer. Frank wishes to remain morally pure despite the strong sexual advances made on him in order to focus all of his energy on his primary non-romantic objectives. What results is a character that is perhaps more morally driven and strong-willed than his archetypical Hollywood counterpart. Frank’s rejection of Audrey’s advances is also important when considered in the context of the character’s goals; after Audrey leaves, Frank learns that her son Jack (Hunter Clary) has been kidnapped, and his goal becomes to rescue Jack and return him to his family, with Audrey and her husband providing a stable home for Jack. Pursuing a romantic relationship with Audrey would run directly counter to Frank’s main aim of reuniting the family, and thus his relationship with Audrey could never be the typical Hollywood romance that scholars like Thompson have described.
Brian (Liam Neeson), the protagonist of Taken (dir. Pierre Morel; co-written by Besson, 2008) is unique among the “macho” main characters of Besson’s franchises in that he has an ex-wife, and therefore a backstory in which he once had a romantic relationship. However, just like Frank in Transporter 2, Brian is an über-masculine protagonist (in this case, a former CIA operative) who neither pursues nor finds himself in a romantic relationship. Indeed, any assumption on the part of the viewer that Brian will pursue a romantic relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is squashed in the first act when he talks to his former CIA partners. One of Brian’s friends asks him how things are with “Lennie”, to which Brian responds, “She’s not Lennie any more, she’s Lenore,” indicating that he has accepted his position of estrangement from his former spouse (00:05:56-00:05:59). In the same conversation, one of Brian’s other friends asks him about his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Brian’s friend asks, “Does she appreciate the fact that you’ve given up your life?”, referring to the fact that Brian has quit his job and moved to California in an attempt to get closer to his daughter (00:06:20-00:06:22). This statement makes Brian’s goal plain to the viewer: to have a closer relationship with his daughter despite the emotional distance that separates him from his ex-wife.
Once Kim is kidnapped and Brian goes to Paris in search of her, Lenore does not appear again until after the climax when Brian and Kim return safely to Los Angeles at the end of the final act of the film. In the airport, Lenore rushes to hug Kim, and Lenore’s new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley) tells Brian to let him know if he ever needs anything. Brian looks at Kim, and with a smile responds, “I’ve got everything I need” (01:26:22-01:26:24). Brian sincerely vocalizes his fulfillment, despite not having rekindled his romantic relationship with Lenore. Brian does not express any dissatisfaction with the fact that Lenore is now with Stuart, and he even turns down Stuart’s offer to ride back in the same car with Kim and Lenore. Much like Frank in Transporter 2, Brian seems to be satisfied with having reunited a family, even though he himself is not a part of that family. Although Brian may still have feelings for his ex-wife Lenore at the end of Taken, he denies himself the possibility of reuniting with her, and thus this movie is exemplary of the denied romance in Luc Besson’s blockbusters.
The Elided Romance
The movies in the District B 13 series exemplify the elided romance in EuropaCorp’s recent franchises. In each film one of the main characters ostensibly has a heterosexual romantic relationship, but these relationships are relegated to a single scene per film, without any reference to that romance outside of the particular act in which it appears. In short, the films elide the romance. In the B 13 movies, both romances involve Captain Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and, just like in the Transporter series, each romance is self-contained within a single film, with no reference ever made to the female character involved in the romance outside of the film in which she appears. This is odd, considering that the romantic interest in the first film District B13 (dir. Morel; co-written by Besson, 2004) is between Damien and the other protagonist Leïto’s (David Belle) sister. Despite this, Lola (Leïto’s sister, played by Dany Verissimo-Petit) is never once mentioned in the sequel.
In District B 13, the only scene that makes reference to a romantic interest comes in the epilogue, after Damien and Leïto have foiled the French government’s sinister plot and have saved the lives of all the people in Banlieue 13. Leïto and Lola say goodbye to Damien on their way back to the banlieue, and just before they part ways Leïto asks Damien if he will ever come and visit. Damien says that he can not make any promises, at which point Lola steps up to Damien, pulls him close and kisses him (01:19:42-01:19:46). Not only is this movie distinct from Hollywood in that only one part of one scene can be considered in any way romantic, but in this scene it is not even Damien, one of the protagonists, who takes an active role. Instead, Damien is the passive recipient of Lola’s kiss, clearly differing yet again from Thompson’s observation that “Hollywood protagonists tend to be active” in their pursuit of romance.
The same kind of elision of romance occurs in District 13: Ultimatum (dir. Alessandrin; written by Besson, 2009) when Damien is shown only once with his lover at the end of the first act (00:27:09-00:29:04). It is not clear who this woman is because she is never again referred to, but it is clear that she is not Lola, Damien’s (potential) romantic interest from the end of the first B 13 film. The scene itself takes place in Damien’s apartment after he comes home from work, and it is interesting to note that the conversation between Damien and his female companion is about how Damien went undercover dressed in drag. This calling into question of a protagonist’s sexuality by his partner, even playfully, is reminiscent of the interaction between Frank and Valentina in Transporter 3, and is another case of Besson breaking from the norms of mainstream storytelling. Once this scene ends, no further reference is ever made to Damien’s apparent girlfriend. In this way, District 13: Ultimatum, like its predecessor, contains a romance that is elided, a romance which the audience only experiences briefly or at a distance.
Masters of Kung Fu: A Certain Asian je ne sais quoi
Up to this point I have discussed how EuropaCorp films written by Luc differ from—revise and even reject—Hollywood’s norms in terms of the formation and development of romance. Even while these films clearly borrow from Hollywood’s highly polished style and emphasis on narrative clarity, they offer suppressed romantic (sub-)plots.
Now I would like to entertain the possibility that in writing the protagonists for the films Besson was not only moving away from Hollywood, but that he was also moving toward another mode of popular cinema, that of East Asia. In his 2005 article “French National Cinema and the Martial Arts Blockbuster,” Charlie Michael identifies the link between the contemporary French blockbuster and the Hong Kong action film, arguing that French producers – and here he specifically singles out Luc Besson – often take direct inspiration from Hong Kong (and this in a way that is not necessarily received via Hollywood). Indeed, the nearly asexual characters in Besson’s films bear an uncanny resemblance to the Hong Kong martial arts action heroes of the 1970s and 80s in general, and to Bruce Lee in particular.
In her 2005 study, “Women’s Reception of Mainstream Hong Kong Cinema,” Day Wong writes of Bruce Lee:
His movies deployed a discourse of macho Chinese nationalism and presented a powerful, asexual hero. There is little emphasis on romance or female protagonists in his films. In The Way of the Dragon (Menglong guojiang) (Dir. Bruce Lee, 1972), a European prostitute tries to seduce Lee but he immediately leaves when he discovers her intentions…It follows that real heroes are those who can resist a woman’s temptation. (p. 251)
In apparently emulating Bruce Lee’s characters, Besson creates worlds in which his protagonists’ masculinities are no longer defined by the formation of a heterosexual romance (as they tend to be in Hollywood), but rather they tend to be characterized by a technical mastery of martial arts along with a monkish sense of morality. In this sense, I am arguing that Lee is taken as a prototype, a jumping off point from which Besson’s characters depart. Of course, like all artists who take inspiration from prototypical sources, Besson tweaks the model and creates a series of franchises whose main characters’ romantic involvements can be situated on a spectrum, with Hollywood at one end and Hong Kong at the other.
The Odd Case of Taken 2 (2012)
Brian, the main character of the Taken series, is the most overtly Lee-like of all of these EuropaCorp protagonists in terms of martial arts prowess and apparent asexuality – in fact, at one point in the first Taken film Brian enters a brothel while looking for his daughter and resists several beckoning prostitutes (00:39:02-00:41:11), echoing Lee’s rejection of the European prostitute.
It is somewhat odd, then, that in the sequel, Taken 2 (dir. Megaton, co-written by Besson, 2012), Brian enters into the most developed romantic plot of any of the films discussed here, with multiple characters frequently alluding to his romantic history with his ex-wife Lenore throughout the film’s narrative arc. Despite these remarks, Brian seems to be perfectly content with the platonic nature of his relationship with Lenore and remains surprisingly stolid when she sends him signals that she may be ready to reignite their old romance by grasping his hand (00:15:55) and kissing him goodbye (00:29:40). Once again, the protagonist assumes a passive role in the romance while his love interest takes the initiative, a tendency that I have signaled as indicative of the reluctant romance in EuropaCorp franchise films.
However, the film quite crucially refuses to specify whether or not Brian and Lenore ever reunite romantically and instead leaves the relationship ambiguous and open-ended, paralleling the ways in which the elided romance works to minimize the amount of story information made available to the audience about the romance.
Further, because of the ambiguity surrounding Biran’s relationship with Lenore, the film invites the viewer to speculate about whether or not the pair actually rekindles their romance. Given the mainstream nature and positive outcome of the film, it seems most likely that Brian does reunite with Lenore, who reveals within the first ten minutes of the film that she has separated from her new husband Stuart (00:06:48-00:06:54), and if this is the case then he effectively reforms a broken family consisting of himself, Lenore, and his daughter Kim. In this light, the romance in Taken 2 can be understood as a special case of the denied romance structure in which, paradoxically, the protagonist does not deny himself romance but actually ends up forming part of the broken family unit he works to repair.
I propose, then, that the romance in Taken 2 is a hybrid of the three basic romantic structures of Besson’s recent franchises, a fact that suggests a development in the deployment of the romantic strategies that up to this point have remained as relatively discreet forms in EuropaCorp franchises. While this hybridization may signal a new trend in the French mini-major’s handling of romance, the overarching principles of the suppressed romance are still clearly in tact in this film. Brian does not establish the goal of reforming a romantic bond with his ex-wife in the first act of Taken 2, nor is it implied that the potential for the reestablishment of a romantic relationship with Lenore in any way affects Brian’s goal of rescuing her from her kidnappers. Whether or not the potential for romance exists, the strong sense of morality that Brian cultivates in the first Taken film assures the viewer that he will rescue Lenore because it is the right thing to do, not because he expects romantic compensation. So, despite the increased prominence of the romance in Taken 2, it still does not influence Brian’s decision-making, as we would expect in a Hollywood film such as Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), for example, where the male protagonist (Sam Worthington) shifts his goals precisely because of a developing romantic bond with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Where’s the Emotional Payoff, Then?
At this point, let’s return to Thompson in order to understand how Besson’s films borrow so much from Hollywood storytelling while simultaneously suppressing the romantic plot, one of mainstream filmmaking’s central tenets. As I mentioned, Thompson cites Terminator 2 as an example of a major Hollywood film in which the protagonist does not pursue a romantic goal. However, she explains, “although there is no romance, John’s friendship with the Terminator and that relationship’s humanizing effect on the latter provide comparable emotional appeal” (p.42). Thompson’s argument that in the absence of a central romance other character relationships can stand in to provide similar emotional satisfaction bears out in Besson’s franchises. In the first and third Transporter films, Frank’s reluctant romances, while not as predominant as they might be in the typical Hollywood blockbuster, are sufficiently present to satisfy audiences’ romantic expectations. In the denied romances of Transporter 2, Taken, and the special case of Taken 2, the reunion of the family in the final act adequately stands in for romantic fulfillment. And in the case of the elided romances in the District B13 series, the development of the homosocial relationship between the two male protagonists, Leïto and Damien, provides a similarly satisfying alternative to the fulfillment of the classical heterosexual romance.
The protagonists of the Transporter, District B 13, and Taken series are all hyper-masculine characters with skills demonstrative of their masculinity. Frank has a chiseled physique and drives fast cars exceptionally well. Brian possesses “a very particular set of skills,” skills that allow him to track down and rescue his daughter while he disposes of all who stand in his way. Damien and Leïto both have the same sculpted features as Frank, and their mastery of kung fu and parkour allow them to display their bodies and their physical dominance. Just like Bruce Lee, Besson’s protagonists all have mastered the art of hand-to-hand combat. And, just like Lee, they are neither burdened by romance nor distracted by sexual temptation. They are Luc Besson’s hybrid answer to the Hollywood action hero. They have all the strength of Hollywood heroes, but without the vulnerabilities of love.