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October 18, 2012

Movie Review – The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

by Master Pillow

Luc Besson’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec can best be described as a film that attempts to combine the action spectacle of Indiana Jones with quirky French humour yet while the end result certainly has its moments the entire package doesn’t quite work especially a third act that instead of building to either an action oriented or emotional crescendo instead fizzles out with neither as if someone poured a bucket of water onto a lit firecracker.  This is too bad as actress Louise Bourgoin creates a strong female lead endowing Adèle with sarcastic hard-nosed moxie and just the right amount of tenderness to make one wish the film executed better.

The year is 1911 and the place is Paris.  However, something extraordinary is about to occur and it arrives when a real living breathing Pterodactyl is born from a long thought dormant egg sitting in a museum.  The Pterodactyl soon becomes a menace as it swoops through the city causing all sorts of ruckus and the police seem completely clueless as to how to proceed.  Along comes our heroine Adèle Blanc-Sec, a globe-trotting journalist who travels the world looking for fantastical tales to present to her readership and who has just returned to Paris after a sojourn in Peru.  Or so her publisher thinks.  Instead, she has snuck her way to Egypt in an attempt to find a long lost mummy of an ancient medicinal doctor who, she hopes if revived, can aid in her quest to help her virtually dead sister that, through a freak accident, has had a large metallic pin skewered through her cranium leaving her comatose.  Yes, as you can tell right away this is not at all a narrative based on any sort of reality and it gets progressively more far-fetched as Adèle begins to unravel ancient secrets best left untouched.

One wonders if Besson’s time away from the director’s chair would pose a problem much like an athlete which takes time off from his or her sport only to make a comeback later on.  Unfortunately, Besson seems to be a bit rusty because the film is rarely visually engaging and the tone is inconsistent, vacillating from light-hearted humour to some really bizarre instances of violence which are supposed to be funny but really aren’t.  However, a bigger problem is that the film constantly indulges in leaps in logic that viewers will no doubt notice.  Perhaps this relates more to the screenplay than to Besson’s direction yet being the final arbiter of this work it still falls on him to realize the enormous issues that crop up from time to time that impinge on reality.  While viewers will understand that a huge part of the film requires massive suspension of disbelief a fellow compatriot should have pointed out that his screenplay features entire sequences that feel ridiculous because they allow comedy to win out over reality.

A prime example of this comes when the professor is confined to prison awaiting his execution and Adèle does everything in her power to try and break him out.  Now anyone in the audience will surely realize that any attempt to do so would be met harshly by the law yet Besson provides viewers with an extended segment whereby Adèle tries multiple times to do so going so far as to don extensive facial prosthetics to first impersonate a cooking assistant, a nurse, an actual prison guard and then indulging in jabbing security personnel with a giant syringe in order to knock them out cold.  Time and time again she fails miserably but instead of being taken into custody for such an act all that occurs are guards throwing her out of the prison onto the street.

It’s obvious that Besson is trying to craft a comedic series of events that show both Adèle’s resolve to help the professor and ramp up the laughter yet the longer the scene plays the more aggravated one gets at the inanity of it as the only result of her failed attempts should be to chuck her in a prison cell herself and throw away the key.  Actually, the end of the sequence contains one of these odd moments of illogic that plague the film since after being thwarted for so long Adèle merely throws the keys to the jail cells to an inmate so that he can escape without any idea what crime he has committed.  It could very well be that this is a first degree murderer or serial rapist yet Adèle is so agitated at her failure that she chooses to let this particular man escape.  This isn’t funny in the least.

Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the rest of the film because the movie works as a kind of flight of fancy as it spins its quirky narrative and it works so long as one doesn’t stop and think about it.  To be blunt it is as if Besson is purposely fashioning a film that really doesn’t care at all about being grounded in reality and attempts a mish-mash plot that caters more to appealing to toddlers or pre-teens who won’t really care for cogent exposition.  To be fair the film flies by on pure whimsy alone with a breezy pace and Louise Bourgoin’s ample charisma yet one wishes Besson actually attempted to connect the dots in a more logical manner.   As it stands there are a baffling series of misfires that really knock the film down a notch or two as well as a few really odd choices that will surely affect International box office sales primarily an absolutely unnecessary segment with a totally topless Adèle that does nothing to advance either plot or characterization and borders on exploitative.

The movie’s first act that opens with a wonderful narration that whips back and forth between numerous characters just works wonders and highlights some impressive comedic timing that harkens back to movies like Amelie.  Even the Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired sequence which introduces Adèle to the audience is pitch-perfect in showcasing its perky heroine as well as providing just the right amount of action and laughs.  At the same time it clearly sets the film’s fantastical nature by attempting to follow Indiana Jones a bit too closely especially the risible fourth installment which had Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge.  In this case, to escape an exploding room Adèle throws herself into an Egyptian casket which falls down a long vertical shaft while bouncing profusely back and forth off the sides of the cavern walls before landing into an underground river that finally sucks her into a giant whirlpool.  To say she survives what should be certain death would not exactly be ruining the narrative as we would not have a movie at all if she met her maker.  However, the sequence works because the film does not particularly take itself seriously and is laced with a strong comedic undertone.

However, Besson can’t quite keep this delicate blend of comedy and action going for long and unfortunately the movie begins to wobble the further it goes on especially when one realizes that Besson has no care in the world to ever explain the fantastical nature of its main narrative thrust.  Thus audiences just have to go along with the fact that certain characters can do super heroic feats almost verbatim and at the same time others are clearly brain-dead and totally incompetent to notice events happening right before their eyes.

This is, after all, a movie that manages to combine an archeological dig gone wrong in Egypt, the birth of a living Pterodactyl that is brought about by a scientist who has discovered a way to speak to the dead while also having telekinetic powers, a bumbling detective and an even less skilled safari hunter who so happens to also be a coward, numerous talking and walking mummies and a Pharaoh plus Adèle’s 99% dead sister who is in a comatose state for an incredibly wacky reason.  Without knowing the comic strip source material I am at a lost to know if it also included all these elements but audiences who expect something more grounded will undoubtedly throw their hands up in frustration that all these fantastical elements clash with the exquisite recreation of Paris circa the early 20th Century.

At the same time the entire supporting cast is pigeonholed into incredibly generic roles.  Thus we get the stock oafish police detective who becomes the butt of many jokes, multiple eccentric scientists, a scatterbrained President of France, a young handsome scientist who stutters and is infatuated with Adèle and finally the Indiana Jones wannabe rival archeologist who looks like a low rent combination of a deformed Major Thot and Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  None of these characters grows even one iota which isn’t surprisingly since each is given very little screentime in which to develop.  I have no doubt fans of the comic strip might be able to identify these numerous chaps but for newcomers to the franchise it becomes wholly distracting to introduce so many characters who don’t really contribute to the narrative.

Nevertheless, while the film has its quirks and questionable narrative beats it more or less works for two acts until the film reaches a truly ill-advised moment when Adèle’s entire justification for her drive is revealed.  First off, having Adèle launch into a long expository flashback is about as generic as one can craft but that is nothing compared to the actual explanation as to why her sister is in a comatose state.  Without revealing the reason I will say that I have no doubt most of the audience will mentally check out of the film as their emotional attachment will essentially be severed as Besson has created a truly bewildering play of consequence.  What is further exacerbating is that once her sister’s plight is revealed many will understandably evaluate if Adèle’s past Don Quixote-like actions are validated as many will realize that in her quest to help her sister that many others have errantly died.  Using a Star Trek analogy, “Do the needs of one outweigh the needs of the many?”  For Adèle the answer is a definitive, “yes,” yet by her own actions she has inadvertently caused a few innocent bystanders to kick the bucket.  If one believes in universal Karma this is obviously not a preferable equation.

The film’s third act is further eroded of momentum because it makes the huge mistake of turning its active go-getter heroine into a mere passive bystander forced to essentially watch others decide the fate of her sister through supernatural mumbo jumbo.  One can smile at Besson’s pure audacity to throw in what amounts to be a super team of gentile Egyptian mummies into his ending but the film’s lack of a primary antagonist really hurts the tone of the ending.  Without anyone equal to Adèle, Besson misses an obvious opportunity to create a kind of Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty dynamic that surely would have brought added excitement to the mix.  As it stands all the male characters are essentially emasculated here and are almost always the butt of jokes instead of being professional and competent.

This is not to say that viewers should expect an overblown Hollywood action fest yet without anyone to rival Adèle in either physical or mental capacity the film flounders as it attempts to wrap up storylines in awkward solutions.  In fact the manner in which Adèle’s sister is cured is nothing more than yet another poorly conceived deus ex machina moment where audiences are once again forced to believe the unbelievable without any previous justification.  In short there is a next to total lack of emotional outpouring in the final act and instead Besson ends the film with a rather overt indication that there will be a sequel by dumping Adèle on the RMS Titanic as she sets sail on her maiden voyage.

Technically the film makes good use of its sizable budget and Besson’s choice of location shooting does well to approximate a fair recreation of turn of the Century Paris.  At the same time the various costumes, most notably Adèle’s ample wardrobe, are sufficiently glamorous and ornate enough to excite.  The special effects work is merely competent enough to tell the story yet there are a few shots which really come off awkwardly most presciently the ones featuring Adèle as she rides the Pterodactyl over the Paris cityscape and one laughably ghastly moment when it picks up the old scientist who instead of realistically swaying and dangling in the air with limbs flailing appears to be nothing more than an immutable telephone pole that jerks back and forth.

Adèle is undoubtedly a strong female protagonist in a genre that is clearly overflowing with an excess of testosterone heroes.  This fact alone makes the film worth a watch as she is more than a match for any man making the decision to render every male character a total buffoon a bit disconcerting because she really has no one in which to play off and show her considerable intellect.  No matter what one thinks of Luc Besson as a filmmaker there’s no doubt that he has at least attempted to create some memorable female leads and for once it’s resulted in a truly multifaceted character that fires on all cylinders.  While Besson should also get some degree of credit for attempting a light-hearted adventure that doesn’t seem to fit well with his past work the end result is decidedly less appealing because he never bothers to care about explaining the fantastical nature of the world that he has created.  I am not so sure if this film made enough money to warrant a sequel yet if the next installment is coming one hopes Besson makes enough adjustments to craft a narrative that can really take advantage of his strong heroine because if it is more of the same it can only disappoint.

** out of ****

2010, France, 107 Minutes, Europa Corp/Apipoulai/Canal+/TF1 Films/Sofica Europacorp/Cofinova 6
Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Based on the comic book by Jacques Tardi
Produced by Virginie Silla
Associate Producer Luc Besson
Original Music by Eric Serra
Cinematography by Thierry Arbogast
Film Editing by Julien Rey

Louise Bourgoin: Adèle Blanc-Sec
Mathieu Amalric: Dieuleveult
Gilles Lellouche: Inspecteur Albert Caponi
Jean-Paul Rouve: Justin de Saint-Hubert
Jacky Nercessian: Marie-Joseph Espérandieu
Philippe Nahon: Le professeur Ménard
Nicolas Giraud: Andrej Zborowski
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre: Agathe Blanc-Sec
Gérard Chaillou: Président Armand Fallières
Serge Bagdassarian: Ferdinand Choupard
Claire Pérot: Nini les Gambettes

© 2012 The Galactic Pillow

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