It's been a while since I gave the ol' Netflix Roulette Wheel a go. Spinning the wheel this weekend gave me The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, directed by Luc Besson). Color me surprised. I'm a fan of the Jacques Tardi comics, but I had no idea that this film even existed. My surprise was tempered a bit by director Luc Besson. I'm not a fan. Be that as it may...
The film is set in 1911, and opens with the experiments of Professor Espérandieu. His research into communing with the dead has caused a fossil pterodactyl egg to hatch. The professor has a connection with the pterodactyl, but doesn't always control it. The authorities are not amused and dispatch bumbling Inspector Caponi to investigate. Meanwhile, Espérandieu's experiments have also come to the attention of writer and journalist Adèle Blanc-Sec, whose travels have taken her to Egypt to find the tomb of Patmosis, the doctor to Ramses II, rumored to have medical knowledge beyond the ken of the Parisienne doctors. Adèle schemes to resurrect Patmosis with Espérandieu's knowledge in order to treat her sister, Agathe, who has suffered a ghastly accident with a hatpin. The hatpin has left Agathe a living zombie. While in Egypt, she makes a narrow escape from her arch-nemesis, Dieuleveult, and returns to Paris, the mummy of Patmosis in tow, only to find that Espérandieu has been captured and sentenced to death for the predations of the pterodactyl. She contrives to get him out of prison so her plan can go forward. There's only one problem: the big game hunter hired by Caponi has drawn a bead on the pterodactyl and accidentally wounded Espérandieu through the link they share. What is Adèle to do?
This is essentially a children's movie, which is right enough. Tardi's comics, and Adèle herself, are in the tradition of Hergè's Tintin, which is as kid-friendly as it come. This is a bit more grotesque than American ideas of what constitutes children's fare, but that didn't used to be the case. This is the kind of film that lives or dies by imagination and charm. Fortunately, it has enough of both to sustain it.
What I really admire about this film is its insistence that Adèle is always the smartest person in the room. This is a boy's adventure with a girlie girl at the center of it. The setting in 1911 imposes a certain level of frou frou on the fashions that Adèle wears, but it's not just in her costumes that this becomes a feminine movie. The mooning of Adèle's admirer, Andrej turns his character into a kind of hero's girlfriend, while Adèle herself uses the impedimenta of her femininity to advantage both in taming the pterodactyl--which she reigns with a feather boa!--but in charming the mummies that take over the film's last act. Really, the sight of Adèle riding a pterodactyl after draping a boa around its neck is one of my favorite images in movies from the last few years. The filmmakers exaggerate Adèle's girliness, too, by placing grotesque men in dark suits around her. This throws her into stark contrast. It doesn't hurt that Louise Bourgion is gorgeous, but they've consciously made Matthieu Amalric and Jacky Nercessian grotesque with effects make-up.
Bourgion is the source of the film's charm. She's a splendid Adèle, though perhaps a tad more glamourous than Tardi's Adèle. That's movies for you. This is, after all, a national tradition that holds that movies were invented to photograph beautiful women. The imagination carried over from the comics is formidable enough to buoy the rest. This is a fun film, more funny than exciting. Adèle's various attempts at jailbreak remind me of the running gag with the paddy wagon in Blake Edwards's A Shot in the Dark, for example, while most of the scenes with Patmosis are played for pure comedy. I do miss some level of narrative urgency, though. Much as I enjoyed the film, it wasn't a film that had me by the short-hairs. I didn't mind stopping it to go to the bathroom. This is disappointing, though the counter example of the go go go of Spielberg's The Adventure of Tintin suggests that I should be careful what I wish for. But then, Besson is an action auteur and I would expect better of the man who made Nikita and The Fifth Element. He has the chops. He just doesn't seem to have the engagement with the material.
Minor quibbles aside, I was charmed by this film. If I had seen it as a twelve year-old, I'd probably love it. As it is, I'm still in touch with my inner twelve year-old enough to like it. It's almost enough to make me want to watch it with children of my own, but let's not be ridiculous, here...
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