The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec Review
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec began in 1976, initially serialised in the French newspaper Sud-Ouest and soon to appear in graphic novel form. They were the creation of comic books artist Jacques Tardi and proved successful enough that they continue to this day. Since that first extraordinary adventure in 1976, Adèle and the Beast, there have been eight more with a tenth currently in the works. Essentially they are works of fantasy with our heroine Adèle Blanc-Sec - journalist and adventuress - coming up against occultists, conspirators, the supernatural and mad scientists in early 20th century Paris (although some globe-trotting necessarily takes place too). Surprisingly it has taken until 2010 for Adèle to make her debut on the big screen, arriving courtesy of Luc Besson and his realisation that Tardi’s work is ideal material for a potential summer blockbuster: a built-in audience, a likeable lead, a bit of humour, plenty of SFX. Perhaps there’s also a sense of competition informing his decision too insofar as his Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec are a response to Spielberg tackling Tintin. In this case the European comic book stays European in its transition to the silver screen.
Besson’s stated intention is that this initial Extraordinary Adventure will be the first in a trilogy (much like Spielberg’s plans for Tintin), yet that hasn’t restricted him to adapting just one of the albums. His film takes key elements from two of Tardi’s narratives - Adèle and the Beast and 1978’s Mummies on Parade - with a smattering of details cribbed from others. Thus from Adèle and the Beast we have the tale of a pterodactyl over the skies of Paris and from Mummies on Parade we have Adèle’s search for the personal physician of Ramasses II, or rather his mummified remains. In conjunction with these two central strands we also find the time for some telepathic mind control, Adèle’s injured sister (a freak tennis accident involving a hatpin), a brief excursion to the Moulin Rouge, bumbling policemen, and a completely unrecognisable Mathieu Amalric under prosthetics and monocle as Adèle’s nemesis. I admit, however, that I have merely cherry-picked various details and additions for that last sentence; there’s plenty more besides in Besson’s busy hotchpotch.
Despite this heady brew The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is surprisingly complete in the world it had created. The ostensible locations - that of Egypt and, predominantly, Paris during 1912 - are both firmly grounded in reality, yet with a little bit of make-up and a little CGI Besson is able to present a suitably cartoon-ish environment in which the various extraordinary events can take place. The make-up, or rather prosthetics, is especially important, rendering almost all of the central male characters as ugly explosions of bad hair and poor skin. (Only Nicolas Giraud, as Adèle’s potential love interest, is spared such a fate, although even he is considerably gawkier than in previous roles.) The reasoning is seemingly threefold: firstly, to continually remind the audience that this is a comic book adaptation; secondly, to up the quirkiness of the film and thus allow the broad, but oddball humour to sit more easily; and thirdly, to provide a whole series of foils to Adèle Blanc-Sec and her very particular manner.
For, as the title makes abundantly clear, this is very much Blanc-Sec’s film. She’s an intriguing figure and far removed from other adventure heroines we’ve seen on the big screen. Lara Croft is most likely the immediate reference point, but there’s far more to Blanc-Sec than a mere body shape, athleticism and weaponry. And if we compare to other comic book heroines who have received the cinematic treatment - the Daily Mirror’s Jane in Jane and the Lost City or John Willie’s Gwendoline in Just Jaeckin’s film of the same name - we find something more than a simple sex object finding herself in an Indiana Jones-type narrative. Blanc-Sec is tomboy-ish, sure of her herself, assertive and more than a match for the various buffoon-ish types around her. Yet, whilst undoubtedly attractive, she possesses a slight oddness that allows her to fit in perfectly well with the layers of prosthetics and CGI on display. Louise Bourgoin throws herself at the role, ably encompassing these various facets and clearly enjoying the more outré moments, as when she too is required to don the make-up in disguises as a moustachioed male lawyer or an obese kitchen assistant. She’s a genuine discovery for Besson and reason enough to sample The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec; those wishing to see further will no doubt be glad to hear that another of her 2010 performances, in Gilles Marchand’s Black Heaven, is also making a UK DVD appearance in the UK this month.
Yet if Bourgoin and the overall quirky tone are enough to make The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec stand out amongst your standard summer special effects bonanzas, or indeed other such recent French fantasy fare as 2001’s stodgy Belphégor: Le fantôme de Louvre (which didn’t even see a UK release in any guise), it nonetheless harbours enough flaws to prevent it from being a wholly satisfactory experience. The key problem is that whilst Besson has clearly put the work into creating a fully realised world in which his film can take place - one that’s both expensive and expansive - such consistency doesn’t extend to the tale itself. For all its comings-and-goings and fantastical elements, the narrative does have a tendency to sag as it reaches the final straight and ultimately comes across quite anti-climactic as it seeks to contend with the pterodactyl over Paris and Adèle’s early excursion in Egypt, both of which made an enticing opening. (The early pace is also maintained by a knowing voice-over that has prompted comparisons with another cartoon-ish vision of Paris, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Curiously it disappears as soon as the story has settled down and never returns.) Furthermore, whilst Besson’s look and leading lady capture the tone perfectly, his direction isn’t quite up to muster resulting in a film that is neither quite so thrilling as it should be nor as funny. Ultimately he’s produced a film that is curious enough, different enough and occasionally captivating enough to justify an intrigued look, but also one that doesn’t quite satisfy. Nevertheless, if promises of a trilogy are to be maintained, then there will be another two instalments with which to iron out such creases and hopefully do Jacques Tardi’s full justice. On this evidence the foundations are certainly in place.
Optimum have released The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec in the UK on August 15th. There are three different editions available, one containing the standard definition DVD, another the Blu-ray, and another - in steelbook form - housing both discs. Details on each, and links for the best prices, can be found in the new item here. For review purposes Optimum supplied the Region B-locked Blu-ray disc and that is what comes under consideration below.
Utilising an AVC-MPEG4 encode, this UK Blu-ray looks really quite impressive. It maintains the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and demonstrates a terrific level of detail which, at times, shows up the comparative slackness of some of the CGI. Colours are strong, as are contrast levels, whilst the busier onscreen moments never once prompt any issues with the transfer. Indeed, the only flaw is the presence of burnt-in English subtitles into the frame, a presence which French speakers (or those once familiar enough with the film that they feel they can do without subs) will no doubt bemoan. With that said they don’t appear to have had any adverse affect on the picture quality overall with levels of clarity remaining impressive throughout. The soundtrack is available in both DTS-HD and LPCM Stereo options, both of which have no problem coping with dialogue, score and foley work. Those hoping for an English dub track will come away disappointed, however; here we find only the original French.
Extras amount to a pair of featurettes and a whole host of interviews, with the original theatrical trailer also sneaking an inclusion. The main featurette is a 26-minute ‘making of’ piece that combines B-roll footage with cast and director interviews which provide an overview of the various key elements: the film’s origins, its SFX work, the look of the film, the casting decisions, and so on. It’s a perfectly satisfactory piece, though one that errs towards the EPK package and therefore doesn’t really attain any genuine depth or insight. The interview pieces, with the exception of one, are all drawn from the material as that found in the featurette, albeit in unedited form. Thus Amalric, for example, will chat away for 20-minutes instead of speaking in soundbites, although the level of questioning is such that, again, these pieces don’t move beyond the breathlessly enthusiastic. Far more interesting, therefore, is the remaining interview, in this case an episode of Mise-en-Scene from the Cinémoi cable channel. Here Besson chats away to critic Jason Solomons over the course of 25-minute, a running time that allows for discussion of both The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and the director’s career overall. The remaining featurette, a five-minute piece entitled ‘In the Studio’, follows Louise Bourgoin as she records the film’s theme song.