Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec
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DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson
PLOT: In 1911, novelist and adventuress Adele Blanc-Sec seeks an ancient Egyptian cure to bring her twin sister out of a coma; her plans are interrupted when she must deal with a pterodactyl who is terrorizing Paris.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s more Spielberg-on-the-Seine than a weird movie per se.
COMMENTS: Adèle Blanc-Sec will probably remind you of those fantasy/adventure hybrids from the mid-1980s, movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Young Sherlock Holmes that mixed swashbuckling with the supernatural in an attempt to cash in on the cachet of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you imagine Audrey Tautou’s Amelie Poulain cast in the role of Indiana Jones, you wouldn’t be too far off the style here. Assaying the title character from a popular series of French graphic novels, newcomer Louise Bourgoin (previously a weather girl) stars as a proto-feminist novelist/adventurer at the dawn of the 20th century, the era just before the myths and legends of the ancient past were scoured away by the mustard gas blast of World War I. Interestingly, although all of her foils are male, no one in the French patriarchy comments on Blanc-Sec’s gender. She’s so confident and forceful in her actions—always seizing the initiative and never giving anyone else the opportunity to object—that we really believe her sex is not an issue. Adele bumbles around like an absent-minded professor, blind to everything that is alien to her goal of resurrecting her sister from her coma, including the clumsy advances of a young scientist who’s smitten by her. Yet, she’s also incredibly composed under pressure, not even breaking a sweat when she’s captured by an oily nemesis in the middle of raiding a pharaoh’s tomb.
Bourgoin is excellent in the role, and what success the movie achieves is largely due to her performance. Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. The cinematography is great, the set design (from desert tombs to Adele’s apartment, cluttered with relics from her adventures) is fantastic, and director Luc Besson’s eye for composition is as imaginative as always. Unfortunately, when it comes to effects and makeup, Blanc-Sec is not up to contemporary standards, giving the movie a cheap, ersatz Hollywood sheen that detracts from the sense of wonder the movie is desperate to instill. The pterodactyl is fine in closeups, but when it’s animated in clumsy CGI, it looks about a decade or more behind current technology. The grotesque Halloween makeup is unnecessary; it’s purpose, it seems, is to transform the onscreen characters into the exact duplicates of the characters from the graphic novel. One character has ridiculous eyebrows, another has unnatural dark spots surrounding his eye sockets, and the nutty professor of parapsychology wears a liver-spotted latex mask that just looks wrong. The makeup all looks slightly uncanny rather than whimsically cartoonish, as intended. The comic plot tries very hard to entertain, with telepathic connections to dinosaurs, a Clouseau-esque investigator who accidentally talks into his shoe, and reanimated Egyptians who speak perfect French and are fond of pranks. In fact, if anything Adele Blanc Sec may try a little too hard to impress, coming off as desperate; but any movie that manages to fit both pterodactyls and mummies into its running time has something to recommend it.
France just doesn’t have the funds to compete with Hollywood when it comes to blockbuster international entertainment; even in its dubbed version, Adele Blanc-Sec barely played American theaters (although the film did well in the Far East, surprisingly, and managed to break even on its budget). The movie arrived unceremoniously on Region 1 DVD three years late, without fanfare, from specialty distributor Shout! Factory. In a small controversy, a brief and apparently inconsequential scene of Bourgoin bathing in the nude was not included in Shout!’s initial release (as it had been snipped from the U.S. theatrical print). Three weeks later, however, Shout! issued a “director’s cut” with the topless footage included, forcing early-bird cinephiles to double dip if they wanted to catch the double nips.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Matching lavish period sets to surreal visual effects, Besson has crafted a feast for the eyes – but while there is absurdity aplenty on display here, the film also requires a very high tolerance for the broadest of humour and the slightest of whimsy.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)