By Mike Richardson
As Lara Croft and Indiana Jones seem to have either retired, or run out of wit, energy and goodwill, the job of an audience friendly, tomb-raiding archaeologist was there for the taking. French film-maker Luc Besson (Leon (1994), Nikita (1990), etc.) offers up a distinctly Gallic heroine for the position.
Adèle Blanc-Sec (like the wine) has a fine adventuress CV: she originated in the pages of a comic strip in the French daily newspaper Sud-Ouest in 1976 and adventured either side of World War I. She was created by the French artist (Jacques) Tardi, and (like Lara and Indy) adventures in a slightly supernatural alternative universe, facing adversaries both human and not-quite-human with humour, charm, daring-do with the occasional
smattering of violence.
Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec is a novelist who started having adventures in 1910’s Paris facing monsters, mummies, mad scientists and demons. Now she has beencut out from the comicbook page and pasted onto the cinema screen by Luc Besson in a typically sumptuous, yet ultimately unsatisfying cinematic experience.
Besson’s film takes place in Paris 1911 and opens with an aged scholar (professor Espérandieu) hatching a 136 million year old pterodactyl egg housed in France’s Museum of Natural History. Yes. You did read that sentence right. The creature escapes and begins wreaking havoc across the city (taking in the Tour Eiffel, the Jardin du Luxembourg, La Louvre and other tourists traps) to the deep confusion and general consternation of the Parisian constabulary.
So far so impressive. Besson’s keen eye for the striking and the absurd is beautifully brought to play by a dinosaur swooping over Paris. There then follows a thoroughly entertaining episode where we meet M. Blanc-Sec tomb raiding in Egypt: riding camels, dealing with swarthy locals, clashing with a sinister foe and escaping certain death at the last minute (with the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian doctor). These apparently separate stories collide as Adèle returns to Paris and attempts to enlist the help of the Professor to resurrect the mummy, in the hope the latter will then be able to cure her catatonic sister (surely a lesser feat than the original resurrection). While trying to solicit the help of the scholar, Adèle saves the French president’s life, scowls, attempts a prison break, toys with a young scientists heart, rides the pterodactyl, foils an execution, thwarts a big game hunter attempting to kill the dinosaur, and takes a bath. All with typical French composure.
The film and Adèle (played by Louise Bourgoin as a real woman rather than a computer generated fantasy) are never less than charming, never less than splendid, never less than entertaining and never less than très French, but they never quite fulfil the constant promise of a gratifying film.
The magic key of a three thousand year old mummy lacks urgency, the sister in a coma as a narrative driver lacks bite, the sinister character from Egypt fails to become a true adversary, the dinosaur doesn’t threaten and the plot rattles along like an overburdened Citroën 2CV meandering numerous past places of local interest.
All in all, Adèle Blanc-Sec, while being less than the sum of its parts, has plenty to defend it: it’s undeniably charming, it looks fantastic, it has humour and is effectively entertaining (just) but as the credits rolled I was left thinking: “Was that it?”
Looking at Besson’s back catalogue “Extraordinary Adventures…” is just the latest film where the director distracts himself (and the audience) with lavish visual flourishes and first-class set-pieces while narrative falls by the wayside. It’s another film where cool and moody fills in for plot and story; flash and awe fill in for satisfactory narrative and the audience is left wanting a little more closure for their Franc …or Euro. However, the film’s general good humour and lack of pretention save it from being an easy target for attack (unlike, say, Avatar), and it’s unlikely to enrage or disappoint Blanc-Sec fans (unlike say Indy IV). So while the unfulfilled potential is maddening, there’s enough splendour and magnificence going on in the on-screen Paris to make the ripping yarn of Adèle Blanc-Sec worth a watch.