INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: Besson’s adventures with ‘Adèle Blanc-Sec’

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First Posted: 8/19/2013

You’re probably a fan of Luc Besson and you don’t even know it.

The 54-year-old writer/director/producer is well-known in his native France, but in the United States, it seems his work is more recognizable than his name to the general public. From “La Femme Nikita” and “Léon: The Professional” to “The Fifth Element” and “The Transporter” and “Taken” franchises, he’s delivered solid action entertainment with quirky characters and unique twists, but he’s also behind some other great foreign films that I’ve picked up here and there in video stores, such as “Wasabi,” “District 13,” “Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse,” “Angel-A,” and “Revolver.”

So when I had a chance to review his latest French film to hit DVD and Blu-ray in the States, I immediately agreed, though I knew very little about the source material on which it is based. “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” comes from a ‘70s comic book of the same name, but don’t let that deter you – I had never heard of it either, so I didn’t go in with any preconceived notions other than Besson’s writing and directing. It wasn’t his usual fare, which is both good and bad in this case, but it is a fun fantasy story with storybook charm for those who don’t mind subtitles or overdubbing. (I prefer subtitles myself.)

Living in France in 1912, Adèle Blanc-Se may seem like a pretty, prim and proper young woman with her giant feathered hats and frilly clothes, but she is actually an adventurous journalist who writes books about her intrepid travels across the world. This time, she’s searching for a mummified doctor in an Egyptian tomb who she hopes can bring her comatose sister back to life – she just has to bring the doctor back first. She enlists the help of Espérandieu, who has been studying an ancient resurrection technique, but before she can get to him, he brings to life a baby pterodactyl that terrorizes the city and ends up putting him on death row.

She must rescue him all while outsmarting her nemesis Professor Dieuleveul, a bumbling Inspector Caponi, and big game hunter Justin de Saint-Hubert, and of course she does so with humor and style. The mysteries aren’t unraveled right away like in most American big budget blockbusters, instead giving the audience a chance to connect the dots first. While it’s fun to watch the pieces fall into place, however, they don’t exactly add up to a perfect portrait of Adèle.

I wanted to enjoy her character more than I did. I loved that Louise Bourgoin played her as funny and fiercely independent, never relying on a love interest to save the day (or at all for that matter, not allowing him much more than comic relief), but by the time she reveals what happened to her sister, I wasn’t able to connect with her in the way I have so many other Besson characters. With so much focus on those chasing her, I didn’t really get to know her well enough, but with the setup for an intriguing sequel at the end, I would welcome the chance for a more character-driven story.

Lacking a lot of big, risk-taking, high-stakes action, the film was not typical Besson in many ways, even in its direction. It was well-shot and expertly framed, but stylistically it felt more like something Terry Gilliam would tackle than Besson, though I enjoy when he takes artistic chances, as he did with films like “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” This isn’t as bold or as gripping, but it shows that he can tackle colorful children’s fantasy as well as any of his contemporaries, and with a little less CGI and a few more practical effects, I think he could build an absorbing world if given the chance to do more.

So if you’re new to Besson, I wouldn’t start with “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec,” but if you’re interested in foreign films and would like to see him expand his range, you can watch this one with the whole family. In fact, given America’s irrational fear of subtitles, this may be a good way to introduce your little ones to a whole new world of movies, even if they watch it with the cheesy overdubbing first. In that sense, Besson is always a great place to begin.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]