Luc Besson | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | France / French | 12
Based on the long-running bande dessinée (aka “comics”) by Jacques Tardi, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is occasionally sold to English audiences with a handy quote from Empire: “Amélie meets Indiana Jones”. I’ve never seen Amélie (though, funnily enough, I ordered the Blu-ray in a sale last week), but I still think that’s a pretty fair summing up.
Adapted from two of Tardi’s tales (the first and fourth, fact-fans), Adèle Blanc-Sec is set in 1912 Paris, and concerns the titular adventuress’ quest to resurrect an Egyptian mummy who may be capable of healing her sister, while also having to deal with an escaped pterodactyl. Pretty instantly you can see this isn’t what we Brits typically think of as A French Film… that said, the often farcical tone allies itself with another preconception about the French, so that’s OK.
Indeed, this lightness — fairer to say silliness — might alienate some viewers hoping for more Indiana Jones and less Amélie. There’s a sequence in Egypt that’s very much in the Indy mould, and much of the stuff with the pterodactyl too, but it’s always underscored and surrounded with humour. Caricatures and exaggerations abound. And if that doesn’t put you off, the introduction-heavy opening minutes might, dense with introductions for disconnected characters and locations. Stick with it, it sorts itself out.
The film finds itself with a 12 certificate in the UK, and that age might be the perfect target audience. There’s dinosaurs and mummies, car chases and fireballs, derring do brushing up against irreverent humour, and even some boobies. Hurrah for the Frenchies’ casual attitude to nudity — its appearance here is in every possible way gratuitous, and yet with a snippet of plot information that means you couldn’t snip it out without creating an obvious jump. It’s only these fleeting nipples that prompt the film to be higher than a simple PG (the BBFC’s explanation is here), though there’s a mildly harsh edge to some of the action too. Should a man being guillotined be funny? Well, it is here.
Star Louise Bourgoin is/was a model, which you can believe from her looks but wouldn’t know from her performance. Her Adèle is quick-witted and funny, terse but likeable, and she’s prepared to don all sorts of daft and occasionally unflattering disguises in service of both story and laughs. An able supporting cast includes Bond villain Mathieu Amalric, unrecognisable under heavy prosthetics, who is unfortunately underused. Some reports say this was planned as a trilogy (whether the sequels are still in the works, I know not), so perhaps he was being established for that purpose.
Director Luc Besson managed to build up something of a following with a regular output of films through the ’80s and ’90s, perhaps culminating artistically with the exceptional Leon, which he followed with US-styled (but French-produced) sci-fi epic The Fifth Element and an ill-received re-telling of the story of Joan of Arc. For much of the ’00s he moved further behind the scenes, writing and producing a flurry of mainstream-flavoured Euro-produced crossover hits — film series such as District 13, Taken, Taxi, The Transporter, and more can all be attributed to him. Adèle Blanc-Sec isn’t his first time back in the director’s chair since the ’90s, but while there’s nothing wrong with its production, nothing suggests Besson in particular needed to be calling the shots either. Maybe someone more intimately familiar with his previous work would see something I didn’t, but though it’s all competently handled, there’s nothing to remind you this is a man who once helmed some truly great films.
The music is by Éric Serra, who murdered the score for GoldenEye with some electronic modern rubbish instead of the classic John Barry-inspired style David Arnold brought for Tomorrow Never Dies through Quantum of Solace (and, one hopes, he’ll bring to Bond 24, after Thomas Newman’s bland and self-copying effort on Skyfall). Serra has clearly spent the intervening 15 years learning how to copy, however, as there’s a distinct John Williams flavour to the music. I’m not objecting — this is an Indiana Jones-esque tale and Indiana Jones-esque music fits like a glove.
I suppose Adèle Blanc-Sec won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Comparisons to the Stephen Sommers Mummy have been made, but its tone is sillier still than that and not everyone approved then. That’s before we get on to its occasionally scrappy nature, including a slightly overlong third act. But that’s piffle I say, because in the right frame of mind it’s all rollicking good fun. I sincerely hope those mooted sequels happen.
The UK TV premiere of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is on Film4 and Film4 HD tomorrow, Friday 1st February, at 9pm.
It placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.