It’s Enki Bilal’s
first visit to Toronto, and he’s looking a little weary. It’s been a full day
of interviews promoting a new film he’s written and directed, an FX-bloated
fantasy called The Immortal. Now here he sits, pressed against a wall
of books on The Beguiling’s crowded first floor. Solemn fans, some draped in
the neo-punk raiment of Bilal’s most famous comics, shuffle toward him, clutching
their hard-bound albums and waiting reverently for him to inscribe them.
draws the same image in each: Horus — the falcon-headed antagonist of Bilal’s
Nikopol Trilogy, on which the film is based. He is so skilled, or has
drawn it so often, he can look up to answer a question while his hand continues
undisturbed. “You are speaking too fast for me,” the 53-year-old says around
his Parisian accent. “I am an old man.” He dapples the piece with shadow, signs
his name in a loose-wristed slither and slides the book forward. “Voilà,”
He has reason to feel flagged. Bilal is a comics superstar, a vanguard of the Euro-fantasy BDs (pronounced “bay-day,” the initialism for the French term for comics, bandes dessinées) that thrived in the 1970s and still cast a looming shadow. Along with compatriots like Moebius, Bilal (Parisian by way of Belgrade) reset the dystopian visions of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick in lush, elaborate comics that established the look and content of Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal, in its English incarnation) and were later compiled in wildly successful hardcover volumes. Today, such collections are called graphic novels, and as they’ve grown in stature, so has Bilal. He’s now an elder statesman. “It’s a good time to discover comics,” he says of the needling attention, “though me, I’ve had my head in this film for four years.”
The Immortal remixes the first two books of The Nikopol Trilogy, Bilal’s crowning achievement. The third book in the series, 1992’s Froid Équateur (Cold Equator), was the first comic ever selected “Book of the Year” by French literary magazine Lire. The movie transports the story from Paris to New York City, permitting its characters to speak the language of the film’s biggest potential market (amusingly with hints of both French and British in their accents). It’s set in the year 2095 (the comic was set in 2023), in a world that viewers have encountered many times in their speculative fiction, a depraved, decomposing metropolis where tattered people hobble down filth-encrusted alleys. In the books, the stench of decay is palpable; every surface is another receptacle for a dribbling mass of cosmic expectoration.
The plot itself is just as familiar. It is, in essence, a buddy piece: a fugitive, arrested 30 years before for protesting his government’s eugenics program, forms a grudging friendship with an alien. There is, of course, plenty of embroidery; the alien, for instance, is the ancient Egyptian sky god Horus, his ship is a massive pyramid that hovers above the city’s core, their friendship is consummated when Horus’ spirit invades Nikopol’s body… and there’s a girl — a ravishing eugenics guinea pig with blue hair and lips — who’s clamped to the pair in an awkwardly kinky love triangle.
Unlike Bilal’s previous foray into cinema, the spare, hallucinatory Tykho Moon (1996), The Immortal pulls every trick it can wrap its talons around. It’s shot in the bloodless ochre that’s become de rigueur for dystopian sci-fi, and each frame is slathered in sewer-grade CGI, including most of its digitized cast. Only three of its main actors are live, including the crystalline Linda Hardy, who plays sapphire-haired Jill Bioskop, and the dustily handsome Thomas Kretschmann (Nikopol), whose profile leans to Liam Neeson where his comics counterpart did Brando. Fans of the original will be pleased to find scenes, including Horus’ crafting of a metal leg for Nikopol from the tracks of an abandoned subway line, drawn directly from the books. They may also recognize the sets and hovering cars from similar sequences in the animated feature, Heavy Metal. The pedigree, after all, is the same.
So, it seems, is the goal. “It’s natural to try to go from one to
the other,” says Bilal. “It’s natural for a comic artist to want to do a movie,
and for a director to want to do a comic. BDs have more power and depth than
cinema; but cinema is spectacle.” The Immortal fares better as spectacle
than as drama; for all its imagination, this isn’t very sophisticated stuff.
It is, however, an interesting study of how an artist perceives his work; another
angle on one of European comics’ notarized masters.