Luc Besson has written some of the greatest female characters of contemporary cinema, strong three-dimensional women who are equal to, if not more than, their male counterparts. From la femme Nikita to Leon’s protege Matilda, Joan of Arc to the supreme warrior LeeLoo, the director has frequently presented the female sex in an empowering way. Sadly when it comes to Besson’s new film, “Valerian: The City of a Thousand Planets,” the women are not given the same sort of treatment, not by a long shot.
“Valerian” is based on the French comic series of the same name, well actually half of the same name as the comic is called Valerian And Laureline (strike one, Besson). It follows the two spatio-temporal agents who work for the human police force. Now on paper this film might seem like a sci-fi adventure – with visuals that look like a cross between “Star Wars,” “Mario Kart,” “The Fifth Element” and “Avatar” – it’s fundamentally a Noughties rom-com and a bad one at that.
As soon as Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are introduced as Valerian and Laureline, it’s clear that their romance is going to be the central narrative of the movie. He’s the intergalactic bachelor, scared of commitment, but willing to give up his “playlist” (his black book of conquest) for the love of his partner and she’s the strong, intelligent and independent woman who eye rolls at his professions of love, but deep down loves him too and is only faking disinterest. If this movie was made 15 years ago, Matthew McConaughy and Kate Hudson would be playing the lead roles – and exhibiting far more chemistry than Dane and Cara – because this cliched storyline is something we’ve seen hundreds of times before – and there’s a reason why you don’t see it as often these days.
In this progressive, more feminist culture we live in, the rom-com’s idealised notion of love, nostalgic gender roles and fantastical endings – that see sensible women giving up their career or forgiving men for the unthinkable (like in “You’ve Got Mail” when Tom Hanks runs Meg Ryan’s business into the ground) – are no longer welcome. Women and men are done with seeing toxic, manipulative relationships on screen and thanks to the Internet we aren’t afraid to call it out when it seeps through.
A movie like “Valerian” is not only guilty of propagating this “Moonlighting”-type romance, but also glamorising sexual harassment in the workplace. Valerian’s constant proposals to Laureline, demands for kisses and flirtatious talk would certainly land him in an HR meeting if he pulled that kind of crap in an office. But thanks to creative licence Laureline (of course) loves him back so we’re meant to forgive Valerian’s pig-headed actions, but it still sends out a message that this type of behaviour is OK. It’s not, guys.
Valerian constantly reduces Laureline to an object of his affection, and thanks to Besson, she also reduces herself into a superficial female trope. As she and Valerian escape the clutches of a monstrous alien beast, she says “oh great I’ve ripped my dress.” Later, looking like a Disney Princess while stroking an animal (able to multiply the amount of pearls you feed it), the agent says “I should take you shopping.” Because that’s what we women care about most in high-pressured situations: clothing and shopping!
You could maybe forgive the Hackneyed dialogue if Laureline was meant to be a fashion stylist or a shop assistant, but she’s a sergeant and one of the federal police force’s best agent who saves her partner, and the world, just as much as he does. These lines don’t empower Laureline, they undermine her and as the lead female character she deserved better, especially with the way she’s physically presented onscreen.
The first thing you see of Cara is not her face but her bum in a bikini as she brings a drink to her partner. Later when she and Valerian are in their armoured suits hers feature ridiculous boob shapes on the chest which are more than distracting, they’re laughable. Fans of the comics might argue that this is what that suit looks like on the page but if they can change Laureline from a redhead to a blonde then surely removing metal tits isn’t much of an issue. Of course, the agent doesn’t wear that costume for the rest of the film because after she’s captured by another alien race she’s forced to wear a lacey ballgown, one she doesn’t mind ripping as it progressively loses more material.
Speaking of clothing, or a lack there of, let’s take a look at Rihanna’s character. Bubbles is a shape-shifting stripper who panders to men’s fantasies. From a sexy cabaret dancer to a naughty nurse, the alien’s raison d’être is to be an object for male pleasure. She’s a slave to it, thanks to Ethan Hawke’s Jolly brothel owner, and the only way she can get her freedom is by helping another man, Valerian. He in turn diminishes Bubbles by forcing her to wear the face that he finds most comfortable – not her natural alien form but the sexy human one.
That moment brings to mind Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the “X-Men” franchise, who is constantly told to hide her true blue self in favour of a human face more acceptable in society. Only later when she tries to seduce Magneto is she told to embrace her natural form, because it is a real representation of herself that is far more beautiful than any other disguise. Valerian does not do this, he forces Bubbles to suppress her true self, which in a film that’s overarching theme is love seems pretty jarring. What about self-love, Luc?
The only other female characters are presented as androgynous beings (the skinny-Avatar like aliens the plot revolves around) and a military woman whose limited role is to notify her male superiors of things and cower in fear when an attack occurs. It certainly seems rather odd that Laureline has risen to the ranks of sergeant in this federal police force but every other fighter, soldier and policeman are played by men. She must be an anomaly, just not one we’re used to seeing in Besson’s work.
He has consistently presented female anomalies as flawed yet empowering women that female viewers can not only relate to but feel inspired by, but when it comes to Valerian he’s absolutely failed. Laureline and Bubbles pale in comparison to the likes of LeeLoo, Matilda, even Lucy and I wonder if a female writer had been given a look over the script they would have fared far better in the final cut. Judging by the critical reception of the film, “Valerian” is going to be the first and last in the franchise, so I can only hope that it isn’t indicative of the female characters to come from the French director. That would certainly be a tragic step back for Besson and his cinematic women.
Guest post by Hanna Flint