The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

When Teleport City reviewed the French science fiction animated feature Gandahar, we delved into the history of French sci-fi in animated and comic form, including the birth of Metal Hurlant, the comic magazine that, when it was licensed for publication in America, became Heavy Metal. Tackling Luc “The Destroyer of French Cinema” Besson’s whimsical fantasy-adventure The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec allows us to continue our meandering history lesson on French comics and comics magazines. Adele Blanc-sec is an adaptation of a comic strip of the same name, which appeared in Pilote — coincidentally, the magazine that served as an incubator for the writers and artists (including Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and Enki Bilal) who would leave it in the 1970s to launch Metal Hurlant. Pilote was founded by two writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artist, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard. The four of them worked previously on comics supplements to newspapers as well as providing strips for magazines. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix le Gaulois, a humorous strip about a village of Dark Ages Gauls was Pilote’s biggest hit in the early days and served as the foundation on which the magazine was built. The magazine boasted a number of other popular series, too, such as Blueberry, Barbe-Rouge, and Valerian et Laureline.

Throughout the 1960s, the magazine continued to grow, and a number of France’s most prominent comic artists and series got their start in Pilote. However, by the time the 1970s rolled around, a lot of those same artists and writers felt that Pilote, despite some attempts to update itself and remain relevant, was simply too restrictive and “kid friendly” (by decadent French standards) for what they wanted to do. In 1974, contributors Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet, and Jean Giraud left Pilote to launch the publication group Les Humanoides Associes, responsible for the sci-fi and fantasy comic magazine Metal Hurlant. A number of other stalwarts of the Pilote stable — including Georges “Gebe” Blondeau, Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Jean-Marc Reiser, Gotlib, and Claire Bretecher (one of the few female comic artists working in France at the time) — all left to join other magazines or start their own. Pilote was subsequently floundering — sort of like England’s Hammer film studio around the same time — and desperately in need of stability and some new talent. They managed to weather the storm but never fully recovered. One of the additions to the stable that helped them cope with the mass exodus of talent was Jacques Tardi.

Tardi studied fine arts at the Ecole nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the Ecole nationale superieure des arts decoratifs in Paris. Shortly after graduating, he began working for Pilote, illustrating stories by Moebius and Serge de Beketch. In 1972, the young artist got the chance to launch his own original series in the magazine, a political thriller series called Rumeur sur le Rouergue. Tardi quickly found himself to be a very in-demand artist, working throughout the 1970s for Pilote and Metal Hurlant as well as adapting a number of novels into graphic format. In 1972, he created Adieu Brindavoine for Pilote, a series that established a universe in which two more of Tardi’s comics would also take place: La Fleur au fusil and Le Demon des glaces (aka The Arctic Marauder), both published in 1974. Set during or in the years immediately before the outbreak of World War One, these adventure comics served as the template Tardi would follow when, in 1976, he was asked to create a new series. Tardi felt that, although male protagonists were the norm, French comics could do with a female heroine who was somewhat more refined than that saucy spacegirl Barbarella. So he created Edith Rabatjoie and placed her in his slightly askew version of the world in the days before World War One, positioning her as the female equivalent of Lucien Brindavoine, the hero from his earlier trio of adventures. Of course, every confident, capable heroine needs a proper foil, and so Edith Rabatjoie was fitted with a suitable arch-enemy: Adele Blanc-sec.

Tardi quickly discovered one problem with his new creation: he much preferred drawing Adele Blanc-sec. So Adele morphed from villain to heroine and main character, a globe-trotting journalist and woman of adventure with little regard for niceties such as the law or social expectations for women. In the character of Adele Blanc-sec, one can find aspects of several other great comic characters. There’s the daring anti-hero streak of the masterly gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, for example (a remnant, most likely, of Adele’s origin as a villain). There’s the intrepid can-do attitude and curiosity of Belgian comics sensation Tintin, with whom Adele shares a profession (now there’s a team-up waiting to happen) and propensity for showing up in the world’s more exotic locales. Tardi himself has said that Adele’s signature red hair and green dress was a direct reference to Becassine, a female comic character from the early 1900s who was sort of an illustrated embodiment of all the condescending traits upscale city dwellers attributed to their more provincial cousins. Becassine was also one of the first French comic strips, and one of the longest running. The most obvious relationship between Becassine and Adele Blanc-sec, besides the dress, would be the latter’s position as someone who has achieved a certain status for her adventures while still remaining squarely outside the realm of what would be considered proper behavior for a young woman of standing. The big difference is that Becassine was largely presented as a bumpkin character deserving of the ridicule of her social betters. There’s also more than a bit of classic pulp and comic hero in Adele Blanc-sec, like Bruce Wayne, The Shadow, Green Arrow, or even James Bond — shadowy heroes who occupy high society positions without actually fitting into them, partaking in extracurricular activities that leave their high-stepping associates aghast (or would, if they weren’t secret).

For me Adele Blanc-sec parallels with no comic character as well as she does Tintin, though she has another kindred spirit in works of literature. In 1975, author Elizabeth Peters wrote Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first of what would become the long running “Amelia Peabody Mysteries” series. The story focuses on Amelia Peabody, a late Victorian (maybe Edwardian)-era Englishwoman with a penchant for undertaking archaeological expeditions that always seem to end up involving mummies, curses, assassins, and other exciting affairs. Like Adele, Peabody is a woman of supreme confidence and ability in a time and place when such attributes as adventurous spirit and intellectualism were considered less than desirable traits in a woman. The similarities between the two fictional women are augmented by the fact that Adele wasted little time in getting to an adventure that also wrapped her up with mummies, though whereas Peabody’s mummies always ended up being a cover for perfectly human conspiracies, the mummies in the Adele Blanc-sec stories were a little more Universal Studios horror in their nature. In fact, that mummy story, originally entitled Momies en folie (Mummies on Parade), serves as the primary source material for Luc Besson’s cinematic adaptation, though the script also draws substantially from the first of the Adele Blanc-sec adventures, Adele and the Beast/The Demon of the Eiffel Tower.

It is traditional for the first film in any adaptation of a long-running comic series to be the origin story of the main character, even if the origin is so ingrained in pop culture that basically everyone knows it. Superman, for example. We all know who Superman is. We don’t need to see his origin story. Or Spider-Man, for that matter, who despite having an origin story that basically everyone knows regardless of their interest in comics, still gets his origin story told in two huge-budget movies in less than a decade. Besson, however, decides that Adele Blanc-sec doesn’t need an origin story any more than Tintin does. She’s an adventuring reporter who gets into trouble that often has a supernatural element to it. End of origin. And so the film jumps into the plot basically mid-stream, which means viewers who are unfamiliar with the character might have to thrash a little bit at the beginning to keep up — at least until you understand that familiarity with the character’s backstory is unimportant. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-sec operates well within the realm of classic pulp adventure, which means you don’t have to know the character since you most likely already know the type of story she inhabits, and you can use that as a bridge.

And so, picking events up seemingly in the middle of things, we are introduced via a rapid-fire entry to a few different characters and plots. First, there is the elderly Professor Esperandieu (a heavily made-up Jacky Nercessian, who looks like no one so much as he does that fake old man who can’t stop himself from dancing wildly every time he’s confronted with the prospect of waiting in long lines at Six Flags), whose experiments with psychic powers lead to him hatching a living pterodactyl out of a one hundred million year old egg. Even though the old academic has some psychic sway over the dinosaur, it turns out it’s hard to make a pterodactyl behave in a way that is compatible with modern (for 1911) society, which means before too long, the beast is plucking up victims and making headlines. World-weary inspector Albert Caponi (Gilles Lellouche, also under a ton of prosthetic make-up) is assigned to the case, which soon brings him in contact with a couple of paleontologists from the local museum that housed the egg. One of the scientists, the handsome but awkward young Andrej Zborowski (Nicolas Giraud, who is not kitted out in prosthetics but does sport a jaunty mustache) also happens to have a crush on celebrity writer and adventurer Adele Blanc-sec.

Which finally introduces us to our title character (played by the astonishingly lovely Louise Bourgoin), currently in the middle of an expedition in Egypt to recover a mummy. As is frequently the case with expeditions in these types of stories, her retainers seem to have been selected from the shiftiest and most deceitful the region has to offer. Why do they always hire the guy with crazy eyes, bad teeth, and a tendency to grin wolfishly while he picks at said teeth with a rusty knife? Her quest is complicated by the arrival of the dastardly Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace),whose sole purpose in life seems to be to foil anything Adele attempts. Recovery of this particular mummy seems to be much more than the culmination of an academic expedition for Adele. After some ancient tomb action scenes, she manages to escape the clutches of Dieuleveult and return to Paris with the mummy, where we soon learn that the mummy plays an integral part in Adele’s plan to cure her comatose sister — the tragic victim of a terrible hatpin accident during a heated tennis match.

Unfortunately for Adele, her plan also hinges on the psychic ability of Professor Esperandieu, recently outed as the cause of Paris’ pterosaur issue and currently incarcerated and scheduled for execution. Her idea was to have him revive the centuries old mummy, the mummy being the pharaoh’s personal physician and possessed of specialized medical knowledge far in advance of anything the world of 1911 has to offer. Additional problems crop up when it turns out that the mummy is, in fact, the wrong mummy and not a physician at all but instead is/was the pharaoh’s personal nuclear physicist. It all culminates in a delirious finale involving cops, big game hunters, flying dinosaurs, and of course tea-sipping gentleman mummies with advanced cravat-knotting skills. While Besson does not fall victim to the temptation to make this first film an origin story, he does fall victim to another common pitfall of the comic book adaptation: the temptation of cramming too many plot and characters from a long history of source material into a relatively short running time. The result is that, while Adele Blanc-sec’s stew of mummies, dinosaurs, and adventure remains consistently entertaining, it can also lose track of its own plot threads and characters. Still, any movie that includes dapper mummies and a woman saddling up a pterosaur can be forgiven the occasional lack of focus.

Although he’s been a fixture on the international movie scene consistently since he first made a name for himself with La Femme Nikita back in 1990 (not his first film, I know, but his first film to make an international splash, unless you count the number of people who rented Subway because the VHS box featured a photo of Christopher Lambert wielding a fluorescent light tube like his Highlander sword), Besson hasn’t worked as a director nearly as frequently as he has producer or facilitator. His film factory has been cranking out consistently low-brow, highly entertaining action and sci-fi films for the better part of a decade plus now, giving us everything from Crimson Rivers to The Transporter series to High Tension, Banlieue 13, Taken… the list goes on. In 1990, lauded film critic and historian Pauline Kael decried Besson’s La Femme Nikita as “the death of French cinema.” His entire career from that point on seems to have been dedicated to making her more and more outraged at the loud, glossy crap for which he was responsible. Pauline Kael and I agree on some key points in our philosophy, but our opinions certainly differ when it comes to Besson. His films, even more as producer than director, seem geared to appeal specifically to me with their blend of Hong Kong influenced over-the-top action, tawdry sexiness, willingness to play to the audience, and unwillingness to handle anything with the least bit of gravitas. Besson makes and produces films that are pure pulp entertainment, adhering pretty consistently to pat formula but executing that formula with panache and boundless energy.

Adele Blanc-sec veers away from the guns ‘n’ guts output that has defined most of the output from Besson’s Europa Studio since they hit it huge with The Professional and, perhaps even more so, The Transporter. The latter film’s goofball attitude and excitement became a sort of house style for Europa. Adele Blanc-sec, by contrast, is drenched in substantially less testosterone and features substantially less blood, though it is by no means less action-packed and exciting. It simply takes a different tone, part of which has to do with the period setting and part of which has to do with the fact that the movie features a female hero — and one in a big green turn-of-the-century dress at that. Besson is no stranger to female heroes and anti-heroes. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Messenger, The Fifth Element — all of those feature female characters who are central to the story and take part in the action rather than playing the role of damsel in distress. But in most of those, the film is also anchored by a male character who gets as much if not more of the narrative’s times, which means they still get to flex some muscle and act macho. With Adele Blanc-sec, however, we find ourselves in a time where dress was more formal and manners more important, and that means we get a very different heroine and a very different atmosphere.

It’s a breezy affair, one England’s The Guardian described as having perhaps too much whimsy (how English of them). For sure this is a playful movie, even when it’s pretending to be at its most tragic. The sad state of Adele’s sister is made as absurd as it is tragic by the nature of her injury. Although the film handles itself from start to finish with a knowing smirk and sense of humor, at no point does it become self-referential or “ironic” in its embrace of the source material. It’s a style of story that demands such a smirk, and Besson takes the film seriously without it being a serious film. It’s obvious he has great affection for Adele Blanc-sec, and the tone he strikes is perfect. once again, I’ll invoke the shadow of Tintin. Just as the comic version of Adele Blanc-sec was similar in subject and spirit to Hegre’s Tintin, so too is Besson’s cinematic adaptation of Adele Blanc-sec very similar in tone and breathless fun as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Tintin. They would make a perfect double bill, though being French, Besson’s film is more likely to feature prominent smoking and occasional nudity (not that The Adventures of Tintin shied away from booze jokes and other slightly more adult gags).

What is particularly interesting, at least to me, to compare between Adele Blanc-sec and Spielberg’s Tintin is the exaggerated look of much of the cast. Both films are populated by cartoonish characters, the difference being that Spielberg achieved his look through the use of CGI while Besson relied entirely on old-fashioned make-up despite the fact that his movie is full of CGI effects otherwise. In some cases, this is successful but not convincing — Esperandieu being the stand-out in that regard. Decades and decades of doing old person make-up haven’t resulted in it being done any better, though at least in the context of the movie, it’s pretty unimportant that Esperandieu look “realistic.” That make-up job stands out mostly because it so closely resembles all the other old man make-up jobs that have ever been done. More successful I think is the job done on the ruggedly good looking Gilles Lellouche to transform him into the doughy, perpetually confused and tired looking Inspecteur Albert Caponi. Lellouche is unrecognizable under his make-up, but the make-up job itself is fantastic. He looks like a cartoon character made flesh. Mathieu Amalric as the villain Dieuleveult is similarly extreme while still being convincing. The fact that some characters look like cartoon versions of people while others (including Louise Bourgoin and Nicolas Giraud) look perfectly normal somehow manages to work, creating a version of the world that is recognizable but not quite the same as our own.

The film’s full-on CGI effects are less successful than its more analog tricks — which is pretty much par for the course anywhere in the world and no matter the budget. The realization of Paris circa 1911 is pulled off convincingly, probably because Besson does it but doesn’t overdo it with the CGI the way was done in other tech-heavy period pieces like the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films (which I quite like, and which would also make excellent companions to Adele Blanc-Sec). Besson also doesn’t achieve his look by draining the entire film of color, a restraint that almost had me on my knees in tears of joy so happy was I to finally see a modern movie that wasn’t all sickly blue, washed out brown, or dirty green-yellow. Adele Blanc-sec is allowed to have vibrant green vegetation, richly colorful dresses and flowers, and brilliant blue skies. Even if those colors were the result of digital color correction — which they almost certainly were — the willingness to finally let things be the color things are in real life is a welcome return to the entire point of color film.

Where the CGI falters is in the places CGI usually falters. The digital effects that bring to life the dinosaur are passable when the dinosaur is by itself, but the instant a human character attempts to interact with that same space and thus themselves become CGI, the tried and true short-comings of the digital effect become all too noticeable. Specifically, the scene in which Adele finally comes face to face with the pterosaur surfaced painful memories the dodgiest CGI in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — the scene where Legolas rides around on the back of a cave troll, and the scene where Legolas rides around (hmmm) on on the trunk of an oliphant (but not Timothy Olyphant, as good as that would have been). You’ll notice that both of these scenes feature a human(oid) riding a CGI beast. And Adele Blanc-sec’s weakest effect is…surprise…a scene where a human character attempts to ride a CGI creature. It seems like no matter how much time and money you have, CGI just can’t make that feel or look realistic. Adele Blanc-sec also elects to animate its mummies through the use of CGI, and they basically come out looking like the CGI mummies from the Steven Sommers Mummy movies, which is to say passable without being realistic — with the caveat that it’s probably not wise to spend too much time arguing about whether or not an actual reanimated mummy moves in a realistic fashion. The mummy here, at least, is given a character, and that means that the CGI takes a back seat to the likability of the mummy’s personality and enthusiasm for the rules of proper gentleman’s style regardless of the ea in which it finds itself. Anyway, shoddy Legolas mountings didn’t ruin The Lord of the Rings, and equally shoddy moments of CGI are hardly enough to ruin a movie as otherwise fun as Adele Blanc-sec.

If Adele Blanc-sec has any actual faults it’s that it tries, as I mentioned, to cram too many characters and events into the run time. Dieuleveult makes a grand entrance at the beginning of the film then disappears entirely, meaning that the movie forgets to include the man who was presumably the main villain. As such, this is a rare sort of adventure film with no main bad guy. Adele has something to accomplish, but her primary opponents are not villains and henchmen; they are instead circumstances. And while that’s an interesting twist, I think the movie would have benefitted from featuring Dieuleveult as an actual foil. Besson is keen on making this a series of films, so it’s likely Dieuleveult will play a greater role in any subsequent films should they get made, but that doesn’t make much of a difference in this one film. In addition to the lack of a bad guy, Adele Blanc-sec never manages to get its two main characters — Adele and Caponi — into the same scene even after the pterosaur and mummy plots finally mingle. The movie keeps such a frantic (but not actually panicked, if that makes any sense) pace that it never quite fully develops or ties everything together.

Luckily, the sheer force of Louise Bourgoin’s charm pulls everything together no matter how frayed and tangled it may otherwise be. For an actress with very few credits and very little experience, she turns in a remarkable performance. Her Adele is confident and forceful but not overbearing or self-centered. She is capable but not infallible, and every now and then, she needs help. Bourgoin is utterly delightful in the role, extremely likable, and with an impish smirk to die for. If you frequent the sorts of entertainment — especially books — that I frequent, then this character is nothing out of the ordinary for you. I already mentioned the Amelia Peabody mysteries, and more recently, Adele Blanc-sec would find a kindred spirit in Alexia Tarabotti, the heroine in Gail Carriger’s supernatural adventure/steampunk comedy of manners/romance series The Parasol Protectorate. The only real difference between Alexia and Amelia and Adele (all A names, I notice) is that the first two are British, and the third is French — which means there is a carefree libertine air and slight disregard for propriety in Adele that would scandalize her fellow turn-of-the-century female adventurers.

She’s assisted along the way by a capable supporting cast. Even the people buried beneath rubber jowls and bulbous noses don’t let the make-up do all the work for them. Gilles Lellouche’s Caponi is pretty funny, walking that thin line between bumbling and actually good at his job but faced with a ridiculous case. If an entire performance can embody “weary sigh,” then this is it. Jean-Paul Rouve (La Vie en Rose) has a great turn as Justin de Saint-Hubert, a borderline psychotic big game hunter called in to catch the troublesome pterosaur. I’d pay good money to see a cross-era team up between him and Yun Je-mun’s equally insane Hunter Baek from the South Korean monster movie Chaw. As Adele’s presumptive romantic interest Andrej Zborowski (though at no point does she become romantically interested in him), Nicolas Giraud does what he can, but it’s a limited role that offers him little more to do than look awestruck at Adele. It’s probably no accident that this movie features a male “love interest” that is as half-baked and inconsequential as the female love interest is in so many male-dominated adventure movies.

A thoroughly entertaining film through and through, even if at times it can’t quite juggle the many pins it throws into the air. Once again, we see that female-fronted adventure films are every bit as fun and exciting as those featuring male characters, but once again, I doubt anyone will take the message to heart. Even as movies like The Hunger Games burn things up at the box office and the exploding genre of female-oriented “urban fantasy” and “supernatural romance” dominates the best seller lists in literature, it’s unlikely film makers will do much to break out of the notion that for a movie, especially an action movie, to be successful it has to revolve around a well-built white guy. We’re currently in the midst of a sort of “geek uprising” these days in which girls and women who like things like video games, comics, and action films (no, they are not a tiny portion of the audience; yes, they are so marginalized by creators that they seem to be a tiny portion of the audience) are cracking their knuckles and throwing themselves into the battle to get something more relatable out of the genres they love than the typical image of women as sexpots, girlfriends, or assassins with 45DD spherical breasts, bikini armor, and eight-inch “combat ready” stiletto heels.

Predictably, this has resulted in push-back from the population of people (read: white guys) already serviced by what they get in these forms of entertainment. But it’s also resulting in progress: games, comics, and movies with a greater diversity and a more inclusive attitude toward women, girls, gay men (hetero white males seem to have had no problem at all accepting lesbians into the medium, so long as the ladies shut up and just made out with each other), and anyone who isn’t white. I’m not meaning to delve into a political debate here — I don’t think the Internet is an effective medium for debate most of the time, and Teeport City is certainly not the proper venue for it, even if on occasion we let slip in a tenet of our Anarcho-Libertine Dandyist creed. So my point it, a movie like Adele Blanc-sec proves yet again that a film can be exciting and rough and tumble without having a male lead, that a movie can be witty without being arty, and that a story can be sexy without being sexist. Anyway, digression aside, Besson really delivers the goods. Not a perfect film, but what is? Adele Blanc-sec is highly enjoyable adventure cinema, and if you’re a fan of any of the other titles mentioned in the review, specifically Tintin (either in print or film), the Sherlock Holmes movies, the Amelia Peabody Mysteries, or The Parasol Protectorate books, then you are going to find yourself comfortably at home with Adele Blanc-sec’s loony blend of action, archaeology, supernatural beasties, whimsy, and gentleman mummies with proper manners. I hope Besson gets another movie in the series made, even if he’s only producing. There’s too much left untapped and this one was too fun to just let it be.

Release Year: 2010 | Country: France | Starring: Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Jacky Nercessian, Philippe Nahon, Nicolas Giraud, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Gerard Chaillou, Serge Bagdassarian, Claire Perot | Screenplay: Luc Besson | Director: Luc Besson | Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast | Music: Eric Serra