On Besson’s ‘Valerian’ and Culturally Specific Humor

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
dir. Luc Besson

I went and saw Luc Besson’s new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend and rather enjoyed it.

In terms of both style and structure, Valerian shares many similarities with Besson’s classic The Fifth Element—a film that engendered a similar polarization of critical response but fared much better at the box office. Though the film did have its missteps—the principal conflict was rushed, the introduction of Rhianna’s character was fairly contrived, and I have some reservations about the handling of the main narrative subtext—I was sorry to see Valerian not find an audience. It was certainly no weaker, in terms of its script and performances, than several celebrated genre films of the last few years, and it was significantly more entertaining, imaginative, and diverse than many of them have been. Perhaps, in time, it will earn a cult following like so many underrated predecessors have. Time, after all, is a great equalizer.

Emily Yoshida, at Vulture, makes a very convincing argument that Valerian failed, not because it isn’t a good movie, but because of its lack of three crucial elements: humor, star power, and brand recognition. To this list I would add a qualifying stumbling block: that the film was simply too French to be appreciated by a wider American audience. The Frenchness of the film is clear in many ways: in the multiculturalism of its worldbuilding and casting choices; in the empowered sexuality of its female protagonist; and, yes, in the subtle, and ofttimes imperceptible, humor that permeates the script.

Anyone who’s studied a foreign culture will know that humor is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. Certainly, there are things that are almost universally funny. (People falling down, for example, are pretty much always funny as long as the people in question aren’t seriously injured.) But there are more things that only make sense in cultural context. French humor and American humor, like any culturally-specific phenomenon, have both points of overlap and points of striking difference. This fact was most strongly brought home to me while I was living in Paris. One year the city held a cinema festival over the course of a long weekend, and during that period you could see any movie in the city at a severely discounted rate. (I think the cost per film was roughly US$2.) I saw easily a dozen films, French and American, one of which was The Big Lebowski (which gives you a sense of when it was I lived in Paris). If you’ve ever seen the film, you’re probably aware of how funny it is. I saw it in a cinema-festival-packed audience, and at one point I laughed so hard I thought I was going to asphyxiate. And I was the only person laughing. At all. Through pretty much the entire film.

So humor is tricky and often culturally-specific. American humor may be more internationally understood, given how steadily it is exported through the medium of Hollywood films, but even it is not impervious to a nation of people who simply don’t get the cultural cues. French humor, by contrast, is far less commonly exported, and therefore less likely to find an audience when it is. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets featured an ongoing humorous banter between its two leads, not to mention action sequences that mixed in a healthy dose of slapstick. But—slapstick aside—the humor was hard to read in its understatement and matter-of-factness.

Was it a misstep to omit more internationally-legible humor in a film without the brand recognition—and/or star power—that fuels most sci-fi and fantasy film franchises these days? Certainly, the box office returns on the film indicate that it was, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is funny and entertaining and visual joy to behold. If you haven’t seen it, you might give it a try.

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