As a collector of comic books, I have always preferred the colorful all-ages action and sci-fi high adventure of the (Anglo-)American tradition to the artsy adult eroto-horrific violent social-realism with a touch of occult would-be-sophistication that often characterizes the more pretentious European efforts. The work of French writer/artist Jacques Tardi in his graphic novel series Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec is a pertinent case in point. Very much a work for adults, it is distinctly Kafkaesque in its depiction of an early 20th century French society haunted by supernatural monsters and demons, and inhabited by almost equally monstrous gendarmes and politicians. To underscore the nightmarish mood of the narrative, the art style is deliberately ugly. In a sophisticated and artful way, of course.
It is to the taste of many a connoiseur, but not to that of yours truly. Which is why I take unspeakable delight in the movie adaptation by Luc Besson, which is joyfully all-ages in its orientation, colorful and light-hearted, and so comically comic book-like that the original high-falutin’ graphic novels probably wouldn’t want to be caught dead being associated with this movie. Too bad, ‘cause they are, and personally I think it improves on them.
The plot is not complex, but told in a way that makes it seem so. This, however, is not detrimental to the movie, but rather heightens the excitement. The story takes place in Paris in 1911. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a novelist, who publishes stories about her own adventures (the ones Tardi’s readers know from the graphic novels). Her latest quest is for the greatest doctor who ever lived, in order to cure her twin sister, who’s been in a coma for the past five years, due to a freak (and I mean freak!) tennis accident. Adèle has heard of a scientist, professor Esperandieu, who has found a method for bringing back the dead. So her quest for the greatest doctor who ever lived is not confined to the living; oh no, the doctor she wants to find is none other than the personal surgeon to pharao Ramses II who lived 4000 years ago! Professor Esperandieu has just succeeded in bringing back to life a pterodactyl’s egg in the museum of natural history, causing it to hatch a live young pterodactyl. So, as Adèle tells the professor, having already resurrected a creature from 135 million years ago, resurrecting someone from a mere 4000 years ago should be child’s play! Ergo, Adèle travels to Egypt, like some petticoat Lara Croft, to locate the mummy of the pharao’s surgeon. Alas, when she finally does manage to resurrect him, he turns out to be not a doctor, but an ancient Egyptian nuclear scientist! Not to worry, though, as the mummies of Ramses II’s entire court are on display in a Paris museum, from whence his entire undead entourage ends up going on a Paris sightseeing trip.
Of course, that’s not even half the story. The young pterodactyl causes all kinds of trouble (especially for the Paris gendarmerie), and a young scientist is pursuing Adèle romantically, and every strand of the narrative crosses over with every other. A large plot-driving ingredient is occultism.
I think this movie is a scream. It is cute and unrelentingly comical, and the special effects (incl. make-up that make many characters look like in the graphic novels, with exaggerated nose, ears, etc.) work really well. It is a classic and family-friendly Indiana Jones style adventure, and to me the movie seemed like a new mix between two movies I like very much: Besson’s own The 5th Element and the 2004 comedy version of Around the World in 80 Days (yes, the one with Jackie Chan as Passepartout that flopped at the box office). These three movies share similar brands of highly amusing wackiness of an entertainingly French – or should I say continental – caliber.
Considering how much I enjoyed The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, I cannot say I understand why the movie has failed to find proper American and international distribution. It doesn’t strike me as being too French; it’s more like a slightly less flashy version of The 5th Element. The crucial point is probably that distributors balk at the lack of star power; the movie doesn’t really have any internationally known actors. Still, on the merits of the story, action and execution itself (to say nothing of the name of star writer/director/producer Luc Besson and his regular composing compadre Eric Serra, who does a highly ear-catching job from the very opening titles and forward), I would have expected a quality conscious distributor to get behind this movie and allow it to reach the audiences it deserves. But who knows, perhaps it can still happen. I would find it sad if this movie were not to become widely known. Personally I will be first in line to buy the DVD with English subtitles, as soon as one appears. This movie is now 6th on my list of the best movies of 2010.
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Louise Bourgoin, Jacky Narcessian, Gilles Lellouche, Nicolas Giraud, and others.
Runtime: 107 min.