The film, which covers their childhood in 1960s Greece to their deaths in a 1980s Sicilian diving competition, is a cult-classic in the diving fraternity, and became one of France's most commercially successful films (although an adaptation for US release was a commercial failure in that country). President of France Jacques Chirac referred to the film in describing Mayol, after his death in 2001, as having been an enduring symbol for the "Big Blue" generation.
The story was heavily adapted for cinema — in real life Mayol lived from 1927 to 2001 and Maiorca retired from diving to politics in the 1980s. Both set no-limits category deep diving records below 100 metres, and Mayol was indeed involved in scientific research into human aquatic potential, but neither reached 400 feet (122 metres) as portrayed in the film, and they were not direct competitors. Mayol himself was a screenwriter for the film, and Mayol's search for love, family, "wholeness" and the meaning of life and death, and the conflict and tension between his yearning for the deep, and his relationship with his girlfriend, also form part of the backdrop for the latter part of the film.
Two children, Jacques Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo Molinari (Jean Reno), have grown up on the Greek island of Amorgos in the 1960s. Enzo challenges Jacques to collect a coin on the sea floor but Jacques refuses the challenge. Later Jacques' father — who harvests shellfish from the seabed using a pump-supplied air hose and helmet — goes diving. His breathing apparatus and rope gets caught and punctured by rocks on the reef and weighed down by water, he drowns. Jacques and Enzo can do nothing but watch in horror as he is killed.
By the 1980s, both are well known freedivers, swimmers who can remain underwater for great times and at great depths. Enzo is on Sicily now, where he rescues a trapped diver from a shipwreck. He is a world champion freediver with a brash and strong personality, and now wishes to find Mayol and persuade him to return to no limits freediving in order to prove he is still the better of the two, in a friendly sports rivalry. Mayol himself works extensively with scientific research as a human research subject, and with dolphins, and is temporarily participating in research into human physiology in the iced-over lakes of the Peruvian Andes, where his remarkable and dolphin-like bodily responses to cold water immersion are being recorded. Insurance broker Johana Baker (Rosanna Arquette) visits the station for work purposes and is introduced to Jacques. She secretly falls in love with him. When she hears that Jacques will be at the World Diving Championships in Taormina, Sicily, she fabricates an insurance problem that requires her presence there, in order to meet him again. She and Jacques fall in love. However none of them realize the extent of Jacques' allurement with the depths. Jacques beats Enzo by 1 meter, and Enzo offers him a cristal dolphin as a gift, and a tape measure to show the small difference between Jacques' and Enzo’s records. Johana goes back home to New York but is fired after her deception is discovered; she leaves New York and begins to live with Jacques. She hears the story that if one truly loves the deep sea, then a mermaid will appear at the depths of the sea, and will lead a diver to an enchanted place.
At the next World Diving Championships, Enzo beats Jacques' record. The depths at which the divers are competing enter new territory and the dive doctor suggests they should cease competing, but the divers decide to continue. Jacques is asked to look at a local dolphinarium where a new dolphin has been placed, and where the dolphins are no longer performing; surmising that the new dolphin is homesick, the three of them break in at night to liberate the dolphin and transport her to the sea again. Back at the competition, other divers attempt to break Enzo’s new record but all fail. Jacques then attempts his next dive and reaches 400 ft (122m) breaking Enzo's world record. Angered by this, Enzo prepares to break Jacques' new world record. The doctor supervising the dive warns that the competitors must not go deeper - based upon Jacques' bodily reactions, at around 400 ft, conditions, and in particular the pressure, will become lethal and divers will be killed if they persist in attempting such depths. Enzo dismisses the advice and attempts the dive anyway, but is unable to make his way back to the surface. Jacques dives down to rescue him. Enzo, dying, tells Jacques that he was right and that it is better down there, and begs Jacques to help him back down to the depths, where he belongs. Jacques is grief-stricken and refuses, but after Enzo dies in his arms, finally honors his dying wish and takes Enzo's body back down to 400feet, leaving him to drift to the ocean floor. Jacques - himself suffering from cardiac arrest after the dive - is rescued and brought back to the surface by supervising scuba divers and requires his heart to be restarted with a defibrillator before being placed in medical quarters to recover.
Jacques appears to be recovering from the diving accident, but later experiences a strange hallucinatory dream in which the ceiling collapses and the room fills with water, and he finds himself in the ocean depths surrounded by dolphins. Johana, who has just discovered she is pregnant, returns to check up on Jacques in the middle of the night, but finds him lying awake yet unresponsive in his bed with bloody ears and a bloody nose. Johana attempts to help him, but Jacques begins to get up and walk to the empty diving boat and gets suited up for one final dive. Desperately, Johana begs Jacques not to go, saying she is alive but whatever has happened at the depths is not, but he says he has to. She tells Jacques that she is pregnant, and sorrowfully begs him to stay, but finally understands he feels he must go. The two embrace and Johana breaks down crying. Jacques then places the release cord for the dive ballast in her hand, and - still sobbing - she pulls it, sending him down to the depths he loves. Jacques descends and floats for a brief moment staring into the darkness. A dolphin then appears and - dreamlike - Jacques lets go of his harness and swims away with it into the darkness.
The original ending was intentionally ambiguous, though considering the depth Jacques has swum to, it would seem he is unlikely to regain the surface alive, and he dies. In the US version the ending is extended with an additional scene. After swimming away with the dolphin, Jacques is brought back to the surface.Rosanna Arquette – Johana Baker
Jean-Marc Barr – Jacques Mayol
Jean Reno – Enzo Molinari
Paul Shenar – Dr. Laurence
Sergio Castellitto – Novelli
Jean Bouise – Uncle Louis
Marc Duret – Roberto
Griffin Dunne – Duffy
Andréas Voutsinas – Priest (as Andreas Voutsinas)
Valentina Vargas – Bonita
Kimberly Beck – Sally (as Kimberley Beck)
Patrick Fontana – Alfredo
Alessandra Vazzoler – La Mamma (Enzo's Mother)
Geoffrey Carey – Supervisor (as Geoffroy Carey)
Bruce Guerre-Berthelot – Young Jacques
In addition, Jacques Mayol himself was one of the screenwriters.
The film was heavily fictionalized. In real life, the two were indeed champions and contemporaries. However, they did not directly compete, neither reached 400 feet, and neither died while diving.
Jacques Mayol was indeed involved in scientific research into human aquatic potential, and was fascinated by dolphins, and was recorded as having a heartbeat that slowed from 60 to 27 beats per minute when diving. He held numerous world records, including dives to below 100 meters. After a bout of depression, he took his own life in 2001, long after the film's release.
Enzo Maiorca (renamed as "Enzo Molinari" in the film) also set numerous depth records from 1960 to 1988, despite involuntarily retiring from the sport for over a decade between 1974 and 1986 after an outburst on TV cost him a competition ban. He entered politics in the 1990s, and became a member of the Italian Senate for a time. For many years, he resisted public showing of the film in Italy, as he considered it to caricature him poorly; after Mayol's death in 2001 he relented and accepted the showing of the film.
Luc Besson was initially unsure of whom to cast in the main role of Jacques Mayol. He initially offered the role to Christopher Lambert and Mickey Rourke and even considered himself for the role until someone suggested Jean-Marc Barr. Besson has a cameo appearance as one of the divers in the film. The Big Blue was the most financially successful French film of the 1980s, selling 9,193,873 tickets in France alone, and played in French theaters for a year.
With its extensive underwater scenes and languid score (as with nearly all of Luc Besson's films the soundtrack was composed by Éric Serra), the film has been both praised as beautiful and serene, and in equal measure criticized as being too drawn out, overly reflective and introspective. While popular in Europe, the film was a commercial failure in North America. The American version was recut to include a simplified "happy" ending, and Serra's score was replaced with a soundtrack composed by Bill Conti. This version was only available on VHS and Laserdisc in the United States (both with 4x3 pan and scan transfers) and is currently out of print. The director later released a longer director's cut on DVD, featuring the original ending and an extended version of the Éric Serra score.
Much of the film was shot on the Greek island of Amorgos, where Agia Anna and the monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa can be seen. The film was dedicated to his daughter Juliette Besson, who required surgery after becoming ill during filming.Maisons-Laffitte (France), piscine municipale (opening scene in swimming pool)
Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
Maganari, Ios, Cyclades, Greece
Agia Anna, Amorgos, Cyclades, Greece
Kalotaritissa bay, Amorgos, Cyclades, Greece
Marineland (Antibes), Antibes, Alpes-Maritimes, France
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Taormina, Messina, Sicily, Italy.
Lac du Chardonnet, Tignes, Savoie, Rhône-Alpes, France (Lake diving under the ice in Peru)
The film was met with positive reviews in Europe, where it was described as "one of the most significant cult movies of the 1980s" by French Cinema historian Rémi Lanzoni, who described it as "ooz[ing] with a sensuous beauty unlike any other film at the time".
The film was slightly edited for US release to have a new, positive ending and the original score was also replaced.
The Big Blue was nominated for several César Awards and won César Award for Best Music Written for a Film (Éric Serra) and Best Sound in 1989. The film also won France's National Academy of Cinema's Academy Award in 1989.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
A Blu-ray version containing both the extended and theatrical cuts of the film was released on September 14, 2009 in the UK, but this contains French-dubbed versions of both cuts, rather than the original English language. This was later corrected and the second release contained a LPCM 2.0 English soundtrack and a DTS 2.0 French dub. The French Blu-ray release contains only the Director's Cut of the film but with a French DTS-MA 5.1 soundtrack and is supplemented with Besson's Atlantis documentary on Blu-ray as well.