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The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec (2011,France)

09/06/2011

Director: Luc Besson      Starring: Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche

As long time readers of this blog will know, I’m something of a Luc Besson fan and have long considered him, at least until recently, to be a film maker of some considerable prowess. While Leon remains one of my favourite films and I love the spectacular look and feel of The Fifth Element, his output over the last couple of years consists largely of dubious kiddies animations and a long list of Producer credits on films of really inconsistent quality. For every Taxi that he’s put his name to, there’s a dubious Jason Statham vehicle (Transporter, Revolver) to counter balance it. The fact that this film was his first proper foray into live action since 2005’s really rather good Angel-A was enough to make me want to see it, even though I have zero familiarity with the Jacques Tardi comics upon which it is based, a fact that I don’t think helped the experience.

Set in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, Adele Blanc-Sec (Bourgoin) is a bolshy, independent adventurer (think of a sort of steam-punk Lara Croft and you’d be most of the way there) who spends her days on extraordinary adventures and then writes books about them. In a bid to help her sister, left in a catatonic state after a horrific accident, she travels to Egypt to exhume the mummy of the personal physician of the great Pharoah Ramses II so that a mad scientist friend of hers can bring said physician back to life in order that he can bring his legendary medical prowess to bear on her sister. Running parallel to this is a sub plot involving the investigation by the put upon Inspector Caponi (Lellouche) of a spate of disturbances caused by the scientist’s early experiments in raising the dead. Perhaps reanimating the contents of a fossilised Pterodactyl egg wasn’t the best place to start.

Here’s where it runs into problems. There is far too much going on for one film. It feels as though Besson has tried to fit in as much of the comic book series as possible into a single script leaving a garbled torrent of ideas in his wake. The overwhelming impression I got was that had I been more familiar with the source material then it would have been less unsettling, but the sense that we should have found the characters instantly recognisable by their appearance or behaviour was problematic, doubly so considering the cultural divide caused by it’s Frenchness. It’s a bit of shame really as the film is rather charismatic in it’s own way, encouraging you to like it for it’s quirkiness and charm whilst simultaneously keeping you out with a cold insistence that you should know what it’s talking about already.

This isn’t helped by the uncertainty of tone in the film. It’s broadly a rip roaring adventure romp, a sort of Jules Verne take on Indiana Jones style adventuring and the execution, for the most part, makes it feel like it’s aimed at children. When we are treated to the sight of Adele getting out of the bath and baring all (Don’t get me wrong, Bourgoin is gorgeous, but it is a completely unnecessary scene apparently there for the sake of it. Or maybe it’s a French thing. I dunno.) it suddenly casts some doubt that this is indeed a kids film, something it’s 12A rating supports and yet the frenetic storytelling and scant detail makes it seem a little lightweight and throwaway for an adult audience.

My biggest issue with the film was probably it’s inability to work to a set of rules, even one of it’s own devising. As the plot unfolds parameters change or are introduced to deal with each scenario as it occurs rather than working the scenarios into an already established, structured universe. To accept an eccentric professor can raise the dead with his science/magic is one thing but to have the process function differently at different stages of the film is a feat of disbelief suspension too far for me. Again, it is carried out with an inherent charm that makes it difficult to be angry about it but nonetheless it feels like a lazy way to go about things and definitely shatters any sense of authenticity, something a film as full of the fantastic and outlandish as this one desperately needs. As a result, the most satisfactory scenes are the ones where the least outlandish and fantastic things are occuring. The flashback to Adele’s sister’s accident is a case in point, a scene that manages to be funny and touching and at the same time retains that vital sense of authenticity throughout.

The good points then? Well, the cast are excellent. Louise Bourgoin is superb as Adele, not only filling her with the fire of a well heeled adventurer but looking absolutely stunning in (and out of) the period costumes. Gilles Lellouche brings a touch of the Clouseaus to Inspector Conti as he bumbles from crime scene to crime scene cracking terrible jokes and resolutely failing to get fed. Visually it’s quite beautiful but has an over reliance on CGI for most of the special effects which I found a little irksome. The costume and set design is stunning, evoking the film’s 1911 Paris setting but there’s a whisper of something else there, a Victorian sci-fi feel to some of it that just gives the vaguest hint of a steam-punk alternate reality. This definitely adds to the film’s charm. It isn’t enough to redeem it though.

To be honest, the whole thing is a little bit lightweight coming from the man resonsible for Nikita. Not kiddie enough for the kids and too self consciously zany for the grown ups it seems to be suffering from an identity crisis or a lack of purpose. I can’t exactly say it was an unpleasant experience, I suppose it was entertaining enough in its own right, but it never manages to raise itself above this despite the opportunities offered by the story. One for the Besson completist I think.

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