Bessons Women who Kick Ass – The very brilliant Lucy (Film Review)
There is a poignant moment in Lucy, when having a brain that has ‘evolved’ way beyond the minds of those around her, Lucy (Scarlett Johanson) turns to Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) the macho cop in the film, after he says to her “You don’t need me.” She kisses him in an agressive way and sayus “Yes I do. As a reminder.” It’s a typically prophetic moment from Besson who has been upsetting the tropes of misogyny through thoughtful, gentle “tough guys” and powerful successfully self protective females for several decades now, and points to his remarkable ability to write powerful females and thinking males into his films and still make money, and more remarkably, not be completely laughed out of the cinema. Part of this is due to his jovial attitude in not taking himself too seriously, working to slip his “messages” in under the radar, but there is no doubt Besson’s kick ass women are very deliberate, and as he says himself, the screaming woman in the background of action films is not consistent with his experience of women. But then neither is the brainless muscle-bound man for whom everything works through violence. In many ways, as Besson is able to smile his way though all the backhanders and low critical ratings because the audience judge his films instead, making him one of the most successful directors in the world.
Much has been made of the ten percent problem in Lucy – a human who takes a certain drug is suddenly able to use more than ten percent of their brain, the implications being we currently only use ten to fifteen percent of our brain. It is one of those ideas supposedly refused by science, or at least there are so many proper questions around it as an idea that we can probably assume it is an urban legend, the two primary problems with the idea being any damage to any part of the brain results in impairment (if we didn’t use all of it, surely you could do without part of it?) and tests that reveal electrical impulses going through every part of the brain, if at different times in response to different stimuli, implying we may not use all the brain all the time, but we certainly use every part of it at some time. But these criticisms astound Besson, and rightly so, because his primary point isn’t that we only use ten percent of our brain, but that potential far outweighs accomplishment in humans still. This point bookends the film, made at the start and made at the end, and are tied to the evolution of the human creature. The film isn’t about how we only use ten percent of our brains, and Besson has repeatedly stated he is astounded that people think it is, or that they think they can teach him something he may not have already known in raising it as a point. It’s a metaphor, of course, shrouded in a typically lush verdant Besson sci-fi landscape, designed to excite us into a certain possibility around language. In typical Besson style, the mythology of brain use is pitted against gleaned facts, carefully arranged to reveal the power of film making in its ability to create a set narrative, and the power of myths and stories to dislodge facts, and vice versa. It is probably this that mostly offends those upset by the wanton use of a piece of misinformation. That shrouded in a film, it can all look tantalisingly real. Even in a sci-fi narrative.
So anyone offended by the image of a super serious Morgan Freeman saying we only use ten percent of our brain is falling victim to Besson’s very point, that when it is given to you in a film, you either believe it, want to believe it or expect to be able to believe it. Film making isn’t this. It is another story we tell ourselves, that either reinforces what we want to believe, or cuts against it, or in the case of Lucy, takes a little of both, but one thing we absolutely must remember is that it isn’t real, it is one persons version of events of which “truth” is so far down the list it may as well not even figure on it. Believable is preferred over accurate every time, and this in itself is something to be very awake to. Besson loves to play around with cinema and our expectations, it’s why he writes and directs such exciting female roles, but he is a warning in a career not to take cinema too seriously. That is not to say film can’t be dissected, analysed and played with. But it is to say, film more than any other medium has the power to convince you of its own bullshit. Of this, you need to be aware. In this way, Lucy is one of Besson’s most self referential films, in that the narrative about the brain power (or lack thereof) in humans as being strictly limited is accurate, in that our truths are built out of our stories, and not out of facts. The ten percent brain use mythology is the perfect metaphor. It’s an urban legend that has been built by us, but we don’t have the proper scientific narrative to completely refute it, we can only give lots of reasons why it’s probably not true, and pit them against the lack of reasons why it probably is. To the thinking film viewer, the film reveals the holes in the ‘proper’ scientific response, the mythology incites.
It makes Lucy one of the best Besson films ever made and certainly one of the best films of 2014. Besson says it was nine years in the making, and it is so deeply clever, it’s not at all difficult to understand how such a complex concept would take years to create. It is at once, a brilliant narrative on the limits of human capacity to see what is directly in front of them, a circular story about the belief factor in films and a criticism of the science it purports to (badly) represent. Scarlett Johanson is a brilliant Lucy, competent enough to perform a completely imagined human creature and respectful enough of Besson to work to expand his vision. Besson is typically jovial and cheerful about the repeated misunderstandings of what he has done here, and I guess he has been experiencing them all his film making life, but it is a real shame we don’t have better critical analysis so that we can learn how to appreciate a film with such a high-minded concept that can teach us so very much about ourselves today.