Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec


Messrs Spielberg and Jackson might be making the most high profile adaptation of a French ‘bande-dessinée’ album with The Adventures of Tintin later this year, but Luc Besson has beaten them to the punch with his take on Jacques Tardi’s celebrated, albeit less well known beyond Gallic shores, series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

Although he takes no shortage of liberties with the source material, not least in swapping Tardi’s cynical and matronly heroine for the altogether more perfect Louise Bourgoin (start your petition for her SLIH now! Trust me, you want it), Besson captures the tone and humour of the bande-dessinée style to a tee. While that sense of frivolity is emphasized ahead of the adventure, those interested in seeing how Tintin might translate to the big screen could certainly do worse than taking a look at Adèle, which, while far from perfect, is a charming and entertaining way to spend an evening.

What you have to be prepared for going into Adèle is that it quite deliberately makes very little sense. There’s a gag about halfway through involving one of many attempted prison breaks that seems to be a nod from Besson to his audience that tone and humour take absolute precedence over plot integrity, and what you should really be doing is settling into the feather-light plot and leaving all questions and cynicism at the door.

On the one hand, this makes for an endearing and refreshing experience, recalling Amélie but with less of that film’s self-consciousness. Adèle just does whatever it wants to do, because if you can’t enjoy meaningless fun in a cinema, where else? Besson cherry-picks from several of Jacques Tardi’s stories and assembles them into something vaguely reminiscent of a plot, but more an excuse to cram a pterodactyl, an army of Egyptian mummies and an assortment of moustachioed comedy policemen into the same film. On the other hand, if you find unbearable movies that favour throwing ideas at the screen rather than developing a strong central plot, you will absolutely loath Adèle, where buying into the scatterbrained focus is central to the appeal. It’s evidently aimed at a young audience – albeit a young French audience, so decapitation jokes are fair game and the heroine drinks, smokes and strips off for a bath – so know that the humour is also played very broad indeed.

There are two key elements which prevent the film from collapsing. The first is Besson’s absolute dedication to keeping the tone consistent, if nothing else. When no other idea seems to last longer than a few scenes, the collage is stuck together by an unwavering consistency in the all-encompassing spirit of silliness. Most films you’ll see this year will have a clearer beginning, middle and end to their stories, but just as many will struggle to reconcile the affects of their plots and subplots on their presentation and pace: just think of all those schizophrenic rom-coms which start out funny before grinding to a halt in a saccharine final act. Crucially, Besson makes no such miscalculation: there are no unwanted romances, no moral messages, nothing not game for a laugh. (The open ending is clearly a joke, rather than sincere plan for a sequel). He might not put much effort into uniting the bits and pieces of his film into a coherent whole, but never gives off the impression that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

The film’s second ace is Louise Bourgoin as Adèle. Not only does she play the character around whom the title is based, but she’s the embodiment of the its spirit as well. She may not have much in common with the original character, but the Blanc-Sec name (which, as she reminds us, is French for ‘dry white’, like the wine) is a much more comfortable fit on her. Her Adèle is a sophisticated and mannered vintage, but crisply humoured, a little tempestuous and with a clear air of picnic basket nostalgia to her affections. It’s all very well that she comes so beautifully packaged – and believe it or not, the images of her attached to this review don’t even come close to doing justice to watching her in motion – but Bourgoin blends together a richly textured character that far exceeds what is offered on the page.

Unfortunately, the film suffers badly when she is not present, which is far more often than should be the case. Especially early on, large swathes of the running time are dedicated to developing a subplot about a pterodactyl loose over Paris and the attempts by a comically incompetent gendarmerie to hunt it down. For what amounts to little more than one of many hurdles on Adèle’s quest to reawaken her comatose sister (by using the revived body of an ancient Egyptian doctor, no less – again, don’t worry about the logic, Besson clearly didn’t), it drags down the pace when it should be building momentum. The material itself is passably amusing, but never feels like anything other than padding for a plot at once too thin and too complex. Even with a voice-over assisted opening, it’s mighty difficult to make sense of what is supposed to be happening in the first forty-five minutes or so. Once Adèle becomes the focus again, the film finds its stride, but as endearing as the carefree tone may be, it robs the last act of any stakes. Besson almost seems aware of this and chooses not have any sort of spectacular climax, but though Bourgoin performs the key moment wholeheartedly, it’s easy to feel pleased for her but not especially involved as a spectator.

Once the credits roll (and there’s a fairly substantial mid-credits scene, so don’t bail immediately), it’s that which prevents Adèle from being anything more than an effortlessly charming but shallow experience. While Besson’s see-what-sticks approach to plotting is a lot of fun, it also means that some sections are stronger than others and don’t get the attention they deserve: Adèle’s introduction hints at Indiana Jones-esque adventuring in foreign lands, but once she returns to Paris, that’s where she stays. Besson has always been experimental in all aspects of his filmmaking and it could be argued that many of his more distinguished efforts – The Professional, Fifth Element – are notable more for their visual strength and cast embracing the spirit of the piece, rather than the script. In that respect, he’s at his best and his worst here. Bourgoin gives the film its soul, the tone is enchanting and the depictions of an alternate universe early 20th Century Paris quite stunning, but even by Besson’s standards, it’s too underdeveloped elsewhere and only amusing where it needs to be hysterical to make Adèle’s adventures as fulfilling as they are undeniably extraordinary.