According to Luc Besson, his latest film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2011) is like “a big ice-cream, [with] Chantilly, nuts, fudge, and an umbrella and a cherry”. Besson has indeed served up a dish that is pure indulgence; the film is a dazzling, crazy concoction of fantasy and thrilling action that is all topped in light-hearted fun and playful humour.
Set in Paris, 1911, the story begins in the natural history museum when a prehistoric egg hatches into a full-sized pterodactyl. This is the work of eccentric old scientist Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian), who has just put into practice decades of research that culminated in the ability to resurrect the dead. Although man and beast are psychically connected Esperandieu is unable to control the pterodactyl all of the time, and so the creature swoops across the city to wreak havoc and bewilder the citizens.
Meanwhile, determined young journalist and intrepid explorer Adele Blanc Sec (Louise Bourgoin) has embarked on a dangerous Egyptian quest to find an ancient mummy. Her ultimate aim is to transport the corpse of Rameses II’s doctor back to Esperandieu so that he can reanimate the mummy, and then Adele can take advantage of the doctor’s advanced medical techniques in order to revive her paralysed younger sister Agathe. During the course of her adventures Adele must escape certain death, elude villainous rival architect Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric), deal with love-struck museum apprentice Andrej (Nicolas Giraud), and outwit big game hunter Saint-Hubert (Jean-Paul Rouve) and the bumbling, Clouseau-like Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche).
Adapted from the long-running comic book series by Jacques Tardi, the film was obviously a labour of love for Besson. He first fell in love with Adele ten years ago and tried but failed to option the stories. It was only recently, after another well-known director had let Tardi down, that Besson finally won the rights to film her adventures. It’s not difficult to see why Adele appealed to Besson. Like many of the central female characters in his previous films, such as Nikita in La Femme Nikita (1990), Mathilda in Leon (1994) and Joan in Joan of Arc (1999), she is a strong,, well-rounded figure. The heroines of Besson’s films often have power, agency, resilience, and an innate fearlessness, which are all qualities Adele possesses.
A cross between Arsene Lupin, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, she is a strange mixture of the quaint and the modern. Charismatic, determined, and deeply cynical, Adele drinks, smokes, curses, and mischievously strips in front of comatose mummies as she travels around the world raiding tombs and fighting foes. Bourgoin’s charming and energetic performance in the title role makes her a delight to watch, and she uses her impressive comic timing and talent at disguise to humorous effect. A highlight of the film is Adele’s repeated attempts to break Esperandieu out of prison by assuming various male and female disguises, including a lawyer, cook, jailer, and nun.
Olivier Beriot’s costume design and Hugues Tissandier’s production design work together to capture the surreal, cartoonish quality of the comic books. The film is a visual feast for the eyes, with its vibrant images, state of the art CGI, and stunningly detailed sets. Tissandier’s design brings to life exterior and interior spaces, from Egyptian tombs to the streets of Belle-Epoque Paris, and he has lovingly and precisely made Adele’s cluttered apartment from Tardi’s imaginative drawings.
The flamboyance and glamour of the period is embodied in the heroine’s elegant style and her ornate costumes, but around her are a whole host of quirky supporting characters (many wearing heavy prosthetics, padding, and face-altering make-up) who all help to create Adele’s extraordinarily beautiful world.
The DVD contains a fine selection of bonus materials, including trailer, a standard ‘Making of’ documentary, interesting interviews with Besson and Bourgoin, and an ‘In the Studio’ feature on Thomas Dutronc’s score for the film.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is certainly not a film for everyone’s tastes. Many people may find it too light, frothy and almost overpoweringly sickly, but for those with a sweet tooth it is the perfect treat.