This year marks the 30th anniversary of Luc Besson’s film, Le Grand Bleu, or The Big Blue as it is called in English. Presented in 1988, the film opened The International Cannes Film Festival and has since become a classic film thanks to its multiple television appearances and award-winning music composed by Eric Serra.
The film tells the story of two childhood friends, Enzo (played by Jean Reno) and Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr), now adults who are world-renowned free divers, competing against each other for the deepest dives. The film also stars American actress Rosanna Arquette, in the role of Johanna, and together they take the audience on a journey into the unknown.
The film was shot over a period of nine months in several locations, including Greece, France, Italy, Peru, New York and the Virgin Islands. It is at one of these locations, on the Italian island of Sicily, that some of the most beautiful dives were filmed and where we meet the film’s leading man, Jean-Marc Barr, who hasn’t returned to this magical place since the film. “I love Sicily, the island is incredible, not just Taormina, but the whole island,” reminisces Barr. “It is an architectural and cultural paradise, but at that time, I didn’t know it. It was all very exotic and I had my hands full. I mean, I wasn’t here as a tourist. The things I remember the most were that I had a scooter and I would drive about with Rosanna, go and have spaghetti somewhere and come back down.”
Barr is back in Sicily to retrace his steps alongside Jaeger-LeCoultre, who not only has a strong connection to cinema thanks to its support of the Venice Film Festival, but also because Barr is going to be testing their brand-new sports watch, the Polaris, by free diving with it in the very same places he dove for Le Grand Bleu.
Barr wasn’t an experienced diver when he took on the role: “I used to work on the fishing boats in San Diego, California, and one of the qualifications you needed was to have a diving certificate in case the anchor broke off. If that happened, someone would have to go and get it. When I applied for the job, I said ‘Yeah, I have a licence,’ so I was working as the guy who would chuck the chum to attract the fish and then one day the anchor broke, so they called me: ‘Jean-Marc?’ It was about 45 meters down and I had never dove more than 10 meters,” he recounts. “Luckily one of my crew mates sensed that I didn’t know anything about diving and took me down. That was the only diving I had ever done, so when I saw Luc, you know, like most actors, you say you can do everything,” he laughs.
Besson took the necessary precautions to train both Barr and Reno for their roles as free divers before the start of shooting. “Luc took Jean and me for about a month beforehand. In the morning, we would take a weight and start at five, 10 meters, working up to eventually 30, 35 meters, and in the afternoon, we would hold our breath underwater in the swimming pool. So, once you do that for about a month, you start to get really at ease,” he explains.
On this warm summer’s day off the coast of Taormina, the water is clear and inviting and although Barr hasn’t done much free diving since the film, he’s still got it and dives down beyond 10 meters, far deeper than any of our small group of journalists dare to go. He is joined by award-winning underwater and wildlife photographer Greg Lecoeur, who captures the magic of Barr’s dives in the very same spots he dove 30 years ago.
The Polaris automatic looks totally in its element on Barr’s wrist, even if he isn’t a regular watch wearer. “The watch is gorgeous, it is simple and beautiful. I appreciate its beauty and quality, especially now that I know the company and have seen how they make their watches. I know there is a whole tradition that you cannot not respect.”
The new Polaris collection of sports watches are based on the brand’s iconic 1968 model of the same name. Reintroduced this year at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the collection offers sporty, vintage-inspired timepieces for the modern man. Jaeger-LeCoultre took the opportunity out at sea to present another new model (photographed here) — the Polaris Geographic World Time Limited Edition, the most complicated model in the collection to date. This new version combines a world time complication with a chronograph and features a second time zone in a subdial at six o’clock, a power reserve indicator at nine o’clock and a date at three o’clock. The collection is limited to 250 pieces and available in Jaeger-LeCoultre boutiques only.
When asked why he thinks Le Grand Bleu was such a success, Barr replies: “I really don’t know. When it came out I was living in England and Time Out destroyed the film. They gave me the most horrible review I could ever imagine and the film lasted for about four or five days in the cinemas. But I was getting phone calls from France saying ‘It is a hit; everyone is seeing it.’ But when you haven’t lived that, you are completely ambivalent to it.
“I remember the first time I had a taste of the film’s success was when I was doing a Tennessee Williams play in London at the Haymarket Theatre with Vanessa Redgrave,” he continues. “I was playing the lead with her and we had been playing for two or three months when one evening people were throwing flowers onto the stage and Vanessa wouldn’t pick them up. I was standing right there and I could see that the flowers were marked ‘Jean-Marc.’ They were from French people who had come to see me and there were six or seven bouquets of flowers and Vanessa looked at me with hate in her eyes and I was thinking, ‘This is not good buddy!’ That’s when I first tasted success.”
It is a fantastic experience to discover the film’s locations as a fan of the film, but for Barr, it brought back so many memories. “The nicest moment was a private moment. We were shooting on the island of Saint John and there was a bay that was closed off with dolphins that they brought in from Florida,” he remembers. “All I had to do in the day was play with these dolphins. At night, we had two yachts in the bay and I remember partying one night and around two in the morning I took my fins and I jumped off the boat. I was just diving, which was something quite natural for me. I’m there in the water and I look up and I see a dolphin coming towards me with all the plankton looking like magical dust. The dolphin came around me, rubbed against my back and gave me its dorsal fin and it pulled me up out of the water. It took me around the bay. When you can feel the freedom of what that mammal is, you know, that force. We were doing five, six, seven knots, it was fast and for me, I don’t think I could ever live something as beautiful as that. It is something that I will take to my grave.”
Underwater photography by Greg Lecoeur
Above Water photography by Marc Ninghetto