Film 2020: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Once again I’m watching a French sub-titled film that isn’t the kind of French movie you’d expect me to be watching: I mean, it doesn’t have Isabelle Huppert in it.

The DVD was a recent impulse buy via eBay, nice and cheap for something to watch on spec. It’s actually my second time round for the enjoyable Adele, for she is the eponymous heroine of a bande dessinee series written and drawn by Jacques Tardi, and after discovering this via an enthusiastic Kim Thompson review in The Comics Journal, I did try the first volume, Adele and the Beast (about a pterodactyl terrorising 1910 Paris), but never retained it.

After watching this film – intended as the first of a trilogy of which neither of the other two films were made, hiss, boo, curse – I’m minded to give the series another try.

The Extraordinary Adventures… was written and directed by Luc Besson and synthesised from a number of books in the series, including Adele and the Beast. It stars Louise Burgeoin as Adele and my gosh she’s perfect in the role, intelligent, direct, inventive, determined and wonderfully drily sarcastic at practically every moment.

All by herself, Bourgeoin proves my oft-made point that the only way to pull off a film so steeped in the impossible and ridiculous is to play it with a completely straight face, never for one moment letting on that what is going on around you, however comic, is anything other than completely expected. The whole film, in both dialogue and narration, adopts a semi-ornate dryness that embodies this approach and which had me in constant fits of giggles throughout.

The plot, convoluted as it is, may be outlined simply. In the Paris of 1910, the elderly and wizened Professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian, looking like he’s stepped out of the page) uses his mental abiities to hatch out a 165 million  year old egg containing a pterodactyl, for which he is sentened to death by the guillotine.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, journalist, traveller and adventurer Adele Blanc-Sec is seeking a Pharoah’s tomb, where she intends to remove the mummy of his personal physician (marvellous these Egyptians, especially where it comes to restoring people to life) but finds herself up against her archaeological rival, Dr Dieulevelt (Mathieu Amalric) who is prepared to have her shot as a tomb robber, except that Adele escapes with the relevant sarcophagus, via an underground river (you’re getting the picture, aren’t you?)

Back in Paris, she discovers what is happening to Esperandieu and sets out to break him from prison against the background of the hunt for the pterodactyl, whose services she enlists to spring the elderly Professor from beneath Madame herself. She needs him to reanimate Potmosis, the Pharoah’s doctor, and she needs Potmosis to restore her twin sister Agathe, in a coma these past five years, victim of a freak accident involving a tennis match and a hatpin.

The Professor is now psychically linked to the Pterodactyl so when the same is shot by Big Game Hunter Justin de Saint-Hubert (Jean-Paul Rouve), his time is limited. He reanimated Potmosis, by only just, but there’s a terrible mistake: Potmosis was not Pharoah’s doctor but his physician – his nuclear physician.

All seems lost but Esperandieu’s final effort was so powerful it would have animated the dead within two kilometres, which just happens to include the exhibition of Egyptian mummies at the Louvre… And the Pharoah’s doctor restores Agathe before the mummies, the Pharoah included, wander off into the Parisian night to have a look round…

The fact that the film was always intended to have a sequel is made plain by its ending, as the evil Dieulevelt sends men to follow Adele on her holiday… aboard the RMS Titanic

Damn, I’d have paid for another dollop of this comedic delight if they could have maintained the standard and I’m sure they could with Tardi’s underlying material to provide a structure.

The film scores in all its elements: the absurd but seriously acted story, the well-defined but above all unexaggerated performances by all the cast but especially the no-nonsense Adele – have I said Louise Bourgeoin was absolutely brilliant yet? The kind of woman you’d be fascinated to meet but who you know would never give you the time of day unless she temporarily needed something from you that you’d love to deliver – the design that conjures up 1910 Paris as if it were really here still on Earth a century later, and the brilliant, bulky dress the cast wear, especially the tightly-buttoned-up, heavy-coated males with their luxuriant moustaches of all kinds, so gloriously thick and bushy and evidently artificial, a visual that provides the final touch to the milieu, and of course the effects.

One doesn’t have a pterodactyl flying around Paris, nor Egyptian mummies trotting around the Queen of Cities without some well-placed CGI but it’s to the film’s credit that this is minimised, and confined solely to the fantstic. Instead of taking over the look of the film, it blends in with it, making the fantastic look part of the scene rather than the scene look like the CGI.

I’ve missed out an awful lot, including many of the strong supporting roles, not to mention one contemporary gag involving the Louvre (been there, seen the joke, wish it were a joke) but that’s because this is a very dense film and should be enjoyed as such. It’s been a brilliant herald for spring in this year of the pandemic, a transportation much needed, and a film I’d hope to watch again soon.

Now for the shopping…


2 thoughts on “Film 2020: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

  1. This film sounds fantastic, and a great watch if you are studying French! I like your point about Bourgeoin’s straight acting amongst comedic moments. It is often thought that playing the opposite is a strong acting choice. For example, if you are asking to play a drunk – you should play a person desperately trying to appear to be sober.
    Best Wishes, Charlotte

    1. Absolutely! Absurdity of any kind is always best approached straiight-faced: the moment you let on you’re in on the joke, you’ve lost because yu’ve started to condescend to your material.

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