Corto Maltese: La cour secrète des Arcanes Review

Corto Maltese is one of the most revered characters on the European comic book scene and his creator, the Italian artist Hugo Pratt, is regarded as one of the major artists in the comic world. Corto is an adventurer in the classical style – enigmatic, cool and sophisticated, he travels the world, quoting passages from Rimbaud as he tangles with pirates, revolutionaries, secret organisations and cults – a loner embroiled in the worldwide political machinations of the early twentieth century.

Rather than start at the beginning, the film creators have decided to adapt a later Corto Maltese adventure – Corto Maltese in Siberia (1975), so there are mysterious references to other great characters, like Monk, who do not appear here. I don’t think this will overly confuse anyone – at least not any more than the story itself, which is never easy to grasp entirely. La Cour Secrète Des Arcanes is a typically elliptical Corto Maltese affair, and I’m not even going to attempt to unravel it, but it involves Corto teaming up with an old acquaintance/adversary, Rasputin (Corto is a loner who treats acquaintances with the same detached irony whether they are friend or enemy) and a secret Chinese society, The Red Lanterns, to set out across Siberia after Admiral Kolchak’s legendary train which carries a huge cache of gold for the counter-revolutionary Russian government. Also aboard the train is a seductive Russian countess and a number of other exotic, enigmatic and dangerous characters.

Translating Corto Maltese to the big screen was always going to be a challenge – one that I wouldn’t have believed possible in animation. It simply is not possible to reproduce the rugged, rumpled quality of Pratt’s exquisite rendering in an animation film, so the creators understandably haven’t even tried. The faces and heads are unmistakably Hugo Pratt-style, but obviously much more simplified and necessarily so. The problem with this is that the most crucial element is lost in the translation - the artwork. For a start it is in colour – which might not seem important, but there is so much conveyed in Hugo Pratt’s black and white inking. With the books, what you lose in comprehension of the complex storyline, you gain through the idiosyncratic panel constructions and framing, the dark shadowed faces and the incredible atmosphere evoked by the artwork. Without this all you would be left with is an incomprehensible and obscure plot with no redeeming art – and that bottom line is all we are left with in La Cour Secrète Des Arcanes.

That is not to say that the film is badly animated or badly paced. You are unlikely to be bored, as there is plenty of adventure and a large cast of fascinating, ruthless and mysterious characters who make frequent walk-on appearances – but neither are you likely to be moved or excited by anything on the screen. Of necessity, through the cool demeanour of the main character, movement is restricted and the plot advances at a leisurely pace. Translating a static character on a comic book page into movement is always going to be tricky, but I think the animators have got it right - although whether this lack of fluidity is by design or just not well-enough animated is open to question. It is fairly traditional, clear-line, boldly-coloured, Hergé-style and it is questionable whether this is the right look for the character. There is some use of computer graphics, but it doesn’t draw attention and blends invisibly into scenes, making no more impact than the traditional cell art. All in all, the art is functional, and when it relies on Pratt’s framing sometimes beautiful, but generally, the impression is of blandness, with the exoticism, character and beauty of Pratt’s linework bled out of the story.

The French 2-DVD edition of the DVD from Studio Canal is presented very attractively in a digipack inside a box, rather than a slip-case. The feature is in the original French and English subtitles are provided for the feature, even though they are not advertised on the case. None of the extra material is subtitled. The menus are well-designed and scene selection is imaginatively put together over a map of China/Mongolia/Siberia, each chapter geographically matching where it is located on the map.

The picture quality is excellent. The film is transferred anamorphically at 1.85:1, there is no grain, no marks, no artefacting to speak of. Contrasts are strong, colours are bright and blacks are deep and solid. It is a very pleasing transfer, looking as good as only animation can.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is good, but unadventurous. Little advantage is taken of the surround speakers and the sound is confined for the most part to the centre speaker. It may not be a showy soundtrack, but it is powerful enough when it needs to be, with gunshots packing a powerful retort.

English subtitles are provided for the main feature even though they are not advertised on the case. They translate well and are clear and removable.

Disc 1 Extras
The commentary, also unadvertised, is surprisingly very good. Géraldine covers the background of Corto Maltese, the film’s characters and their relation to Hugo Pratt’s life, while David (there are no other details on who these people are) covers the historical, political and geographical details of the period, although occasionally they overlap into each other’s area of expertise. They only add information when necessary, so there can sometimes be gaps of 5-10 minutes, so it is like watching the film with aural footnotes. It really does add another dimension to the film, providing guidance to the complexities of the plot, the characters and the historical reality. Unfortunately it is in French and there are no subtitles.

Theatrical trailer (1.53)
The trailer is in French with no subtitles, letterboxed at 1.85:1.

Trailers (7.36)
Trailers for current and forthcoming Studio Canal releases on DVD - La Vie Promise, La Sirène Rouge, L’Adversaire, Patrick Timsit’s Quelqu’un de Bien and Pour un Garçon (About A Boy).

Disc 2 Extras
Interview with Pascal Morelli (40.57)
The interview is in French with no subtitles. In the first half of the interview, the director talks about the creation and the creator. He talks about his first experience of Pratt’s work – how it looks ugly on first viewing but works astonishingly well. He talks about the openness of Corto’s character, where you are able to imprint your own ideas upon him, as being a reason for his popularity. In the second half of the interview he talks about bringing this to the screen, the reasoning behind animation choices and the methods used.

The opening scene (4.43) and closing scene (4.58) are shown with storyboards. This is fully animated, zooming in on details or written notes. There are a further 20 minutes of animatics of 4 unfilmed scenes, not animated, but fully voiced without sound effects. In French – no subtitles.

Studio Workshop
Pascal Morelli drawing Corto (3.33); Thierry Thomas (Scriptwriter) on adapting the pacing of a Pratt storyline to a moving image (3.16); Robert Réa (Producer) talks about meeting Hugo Pratt, getting approval and setting the machinery in motion for an animated feature (3.05); Sophie Glass (Artistic Producer) on why put Corto onto the screen and how Corto appeals to women (1.12); Shanghai Li – uncoloured line work put through a computer for testing (0.38).

Promotional Launch
Corto Meets His Public - An interview with the director and producer at a Paris Fnac store on 21 September 2002, to promote the launch of the film. A Q&A session with the audience brings out some interesting points.

Portrait of Hugo Pratt (7.24)
Hugo Pratt talks about what it is that inspires him to create, developing a character and how graphic stories can be hard work. He compares how a writer can blithely write a line of text, but a comic artist must research trees, costumes and many other factors before he can depict a single frame. The interview was filmed in 1994, a year before his death.

Image Gallery
Backgrounds shown as a slideshow (3.56), Stills (30) from the movie which can be navigated or allowed to play and there are brief Character descriptions (in French).

French animation is not adult-oriented, which is surprising considering the popularity and sophistication of French comic art. This should have been an attempt to pioneer in the field, but, although it contains more graphic violence and nudity, thematically and artistically it is not much more advanced than Tintin or Blake and Mortimer. If it brings Corto Maltese to a new audience, then maybe it will have achieved something worthy, but as a film and adaptation it doesn’t work. The DVD is a typically thorough and high-quality French release, and I can highly recommend it if you are interested. A Corto Maltese TV series is due to follow this.

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