Immortel (Ad Vitam) Review

The Yugoslav-born French comic book artist Enki Bilal has had a close relationship with cinema for a number of years, his work and designs proving very influential on many science-fiction films. As well as working as a production designer for Alain Resnais (La Vie Est Un Roman), Bilal has directed several films of his own work (Tykho Moon, Bunker Palace Hotel) but has so far failed to capture the power and imagination of his comic work on the screen. With the advanced state of computer graphics nowadays, it seemed like Bilal would finally have the opportunity to bring his creative brilliance to cinema audiences adapting the first two volumes of his most famous work ‘The Nikopol Trilogy’ and making extensive use of available technology.

Set in the year 2095, a giant extraterrestrial pyramid floats above New York and Central Park has become an Intrusion Zone – an area of the city under frozen conditions that is a gateway to parallel worlds but is hazardous to anyone attempting entry to it. On the floating pyramid of the Egyptian Gods is Horus from Hierakonopolis, the hawk-headed god of heaven and one of the ancient creators of earth. Horus has been condemned to death, but is allowed a final seven days to revisit the world he helped create. He intends to use the last brief moments of his life to impregnate a suitable vessel but no ordinary human would be capable of procreating with a god. He finds Jill (Linda Hardy), a pale, blue-haired woman with flaking skin who is a mystery to the Eugenic scientist Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling), her body appearing to be only created three months ago.

Finding a human body capable of hosting his own form however is a greater problem for Horus, as all the genetically modified humans are too impure to bear his attempts to inhabit them, resulting in rather messy deaths that attract the attention of the police. When a frozen prison pod mysteriously breaks free, Horus discovers Nikopol (Thomas Kretchmann), a prisoner who has been cryogenically frozen for 30 years, his body pure and free from genetic enhancement. He has however lost one of his limbs in the accident, but for Horus he will be the host body that allows him to impregnate Jill.

Anyone familiar with ‘The Nikopol Trilogy’ will recognise little of the original graphic novels ‘La Foire Aux Immortels’ and ‘La Femme Piège’ adapted for the film. The characters Alcide Nikopol and Jill Bioskop remain – although vastly changed from the books – as do Horus and the flying pyramid, but apart from the recreation of one or two scenes and the liberal quoting from Baudelaire, the whole scope and intent of the graphic novels, from its Paris, London and Berlin locations to its nineteen-eighties satirical depictions of futuristic French fascist and communist dictatorships, have been ditched in favour of a medical dictatorship and ...well, there’s not any clear purpose or message here really, unless Bilal now regards genetics and body enhancement as the new fascism in modern society. The plot of Immortel (Ad Vitam) certainly lacks the ambition and wealth of ideas of the comic works, but there's still plenty to enjoy. The film seems to just relish exploring the world and characters it has created here and appears to have no other purpose than making a visually spectacular work of imagination. Unfortunately, many of those images, many of them no doubt initially inspired by Bilal’s original comic work, now look old-hat on the screen. A face reconstruction scene is similar to one in Brazil, the flying Yellow Cabs recall The Fifth Element while a colourful bar scene and a crowded street shoot-out are heavily reminiscent of Blade Runner, which remains, along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the vision of the futuristic city for all science fiction filmmakers to aspire to. Immortel, for all its imagination and incredible production designs unfortunately doesn’t completely succeed in creating a fresh or entirely original vision.

Bilal has made several curious choices in making the film, using computer effects extensively not only for backgrounds and effects, but making some of the main characters completely computer animated. Computer-drawn characters interact with real-life actors without there being any clear reason to differentiate between them. Perhaps if the computer designed characters were used to depict solely overly-genetically enhanced characters or extraterrestrial entities, rendering them distinct from the pure human characters then there might have a been a point to this, but there’s no such consistency here. Certainly CGI rendering has come on a long way, but it is still far from creating a convincing human who doesn’t move stiffly and can accurately mimic complex lip-movements in time to dialogue. Not that the actual real-life actors in Immortel are that much better. Only Rampling is speaking her native English here, managing a plummy accent that makes even her worst lines ring with wit and meaning, but both Hardy (dubbed by Barbara Scaff) and Kretchmann are handicapped with having to deliver dreadful dialogue in an unfamiliar tongue that struggles to accurately convey intonation and emphasis. The dialogue also suffers from the most common sort of mistranslation that usually afflicts subtitles, particularly in the inappropriate and non-colloquial translation of swearwords.

What remains intact from Bilal’s comic work is the artist/director’s amazing eye for composition, design and colour sensibility. The film looks visually stunning in places, creating some breathtakingly beautiful and imaginative scenes on a par with anything from his comics work and truly unlike anything ever seen on a movie screen. The technology that renders his imagination for the screen is getting closer to how it ought to look, but it’s the gap that remains between imagination and actualisation – so effortlessly easy for Bilal to get the reader to accept on a comic page and so difficult to create convincingly on a computer monitor – that finally lets Immortel down.

TF1 have released Immortel (Ad Vitam) in France in a number of editions. A 2-DVD Collector Edition, a Deluxe Limited Edition of only 2095 copies which includes an original Bilal sketch, and a forthcoming single-disc edition. The DVD reviewed is the French 2-DVD Collector Edition, which comes nicely packaged in a plastic holographic cover and a full-colour booklet. The original English soundtrack language is provided, but comes with mandatory French subtitles. Details below.

There’s not a great deal to say about the DVD video quality, since it is practically perfect. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, there is not a single mark or scratch of any kind, the image is crystal clear, light and contrast balance are perfect and the colour levels are simply stunning. Flaws are there in some very minor artefacting, but you’ll need to examine it in close-up or in freeze-frame to detect this.

The film’s original soundtrack is English and this is presented on the DVD as a Dolby Digital 6.1EX mix and a DTS 6.1ES mix. Both are extremely powerful, clear and dynamic and the DTS has a deeper, warmer reverberation, but neither show-off the soundtrack ostentatiously despite the high quality mixes, keeping effects appropriate to what is on the screen and not overloading the surrounds unnecessarily. French Dolby Digital 6.1EX and DTS 6.1ES mixes are also included, possibly stretching the disc capacity, but they seem to manage somehow with little ill effect on the image.

Ok – here’s the problem for English language speakers. The original English soundtrack options can only be selected in conjunction with fixed French subtitles. The subtitles are evidently not burnt onto the print, since French and French hard of hearing subtitles can be selected. However these options cannot be changed from your remote control during playback and can only be selected from the language options. There is no option to play in English without French subtitles. Some players however may be able to circumvent this restriction. There are also one or two lines of dialogue spoken in ancient Egyptian between Anubis, Bastet and Horus in the pyramid, which are only subtitled in French. There’s certainly no problem with watching or following the film with the options provided, though you could certainly do without the enforced French subtitles.

There are a strong selection of extras on the two disc set, most in 1.85:1 anamorphic, but the language is French and none of the features include English subtitles or indeed subtitles of any kind. As most of the features are discussion-heavy, non-French speakers will not find much here of interest. I’ll therefore cover them in a bit more detail, as they do have some useful information about the film’s making.

Disc 1 Extra Features
Enki Bilal Commentary
In quite a scene-specific commentary, Enki Bilal explains the significance of each scene, in terms of how it was shot, what is real and what is CGI, in terms of the music and how it all contributes to the scenes intended effect and to the film as a whole. Occasionally the director refers back to the original book, but he doesn’t even consider this an adaptation, more of a deconstruction of ‘The Nikopol Trilogy’. He comments on the difference in the dubbing and the actors used (we lose the great voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant in the English version). All in all, Bilal speaks well and clearly about his work here and, being scene-specific, it doesn’t overlap greatly with what is spoken about in the other extra features.

This is a Bande Annonce, a trailer for the extras, showing clips of what is included on disc 2.

This instructs you on how to link to the TF1video web-site.

Disc 2 Extra Features
Avant-Premières (08:09)
Footage of Bilal appearing on stage before the first screening and taking part in a post-screening discussion. It’s not terribly informative, Bilal mostly refers to the Baudelaire quotes and what the poet means to him.

Rencontres avec le public (20:52)
The director explains more in a series of in-store appearances at French Fnac stores. This is similar to the same feature on the French Corto Maltese DVD. In response to audience questions, Bilal talks about his love of cinema from a child growing up in Belgrade and the common visual strengths of BD and film. He also examines the differences between them and sees the film of Immortel (Ad Vitam) as having to necessarily lose the complex levels of the graphic novels. His aim however was not just to simplify, but to re-create a story that worked in a different medium for a wider international audience.

Enki Bilal face à son atelier (08:30)
Bilal fans will have already seen this extra on a CD-ROM edition of Le Sommeil du Monstre. Filmed in 1998 while finishing the first volume of his ‘Monstres’ trilogy, it shows Bilal working in his studio. The extra comes with an optional commentary in which Bilal talks about the materials he uses, taking us through the drawing stages, but mostly showing him applying finishing touches. He also compares this to the collaborative effort of making a film, showing some preparatory material for Immortel. For anyone interested in drawing, it is extremely dispiriting to see the fluid ease with which he draws and the resultant brilliance of the work.

Discussion with Serge Lehman (39:39)
Rather more interesting than the usual interview extra feature, Bilal and writer Lehman discuss various aspects of the science-fiction, cinematic versus literary science-fiction, US science-fiction versus European science-fiction and how the film itself fits into the genre. There’s a lot covered here, but specific to the film there are some interesting revelations about the director’s approach to making the film – he didn’t re-read his books but created an entirely new situation with the characters, he doesn’t think that the literary complexity of BD or books can be conveyed in film, which of course has financial constraints that the unlimited budget of the imagination drawn on paper doesn’t have. While the writers see the main element of the film as a love-story, the SF elements bring out the nature of humanity as an irrational element that cannot be constrained by laws and restrictions on liberty.

La musique du film
This section contains an Interview with composer Goran Vejvoda (03:44), where he discusses how he came to meet Bilal and how they fitted the music to the film. 18 Unused film music (49:52) tracks are included, which can be selected individually, as play all or on random. The score is mostly hypnotic ambient-electronic rhythms with a few NIN-lite crashing guitar chords.

Making of Immortel Ad Vitam (36:05)
Both producer and director were initially wary of using 3-D computer graphics, but clearly their reservations were overcome after a few tests. The making of shows Bilal having a very much hands-on role in the design and storyboarding. It’s a fascinating ‘making of’, seeing how the various CGI and human elements are brought together through precise planning and timing. It’s bizarre to see that some real actors were used in the film, but completely and pointlessly replaced by CG characters. It’s telling however that there is very little in the way of cast interviews, the emphasis being on the technical aspects of the film.

Making of technique (30:29)
Expanding on the last ‘making of’, this feature focuses on the work of the Duran studio’s 3-D art, showing the process from traditional storyboards through 3-D storyboards to the finish scene. It also looks at the set designs, green-screen photography, rotoscoping, motion capture and how it is all put together. The feature gives some idea of the arduous processes in the long development of the film, showing early tests and an early promo developed for Cannes 2001. A full five-minute teaser/clip for the final film is included as a music video.

Bilal’s long-awaited adaptation of his most famous comicbook creation to screen is ultimately a disappointment, but the fault has little to do with shortcomings in the computer technology used to render much of the film. There’s enough brilliance and imagination on display here to give an indication of what could have been achieved, but some curious directorial decisions have resulted in Immortel failing to fully live up to what could have reasonably been expected from it. The decision to simplify the original elements of ‘The Nikopol Trilogy’ is understandable, but the love-story is cold, unconventional and far from convincing. Most damaging to the film however are the use of wholly CGI-created characters, the decision to make the film in English without casting English-speaking actors to play the principal parts and an inadequate script – all of which are weaknesses that could have been addressed. Perhaps Bilal will master these elements for his next film – a sequel to Ad Vitam? – and if he does, it really should be something to see, but it is unfortunate that his greatest creation has thus far been inadequately represented by Immortel (Ad Vitam).

6 out of 10
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