In parts one of my “Heavy Light” article, I delved into the history of French sci-fi comics magazine Metal Hurlant, which when it was licensed for publication in America, became Heavy Metal. Watching Luc “The Destroyer of French Cinema” Besson’s whimsical fantasy-adventure The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec allows us to continue our meandering history lesson on French comics. Adele Blanc-sec is an adaptation of a comic strip of the same name, which appeared in Pilote — coincidentally, the magazine that served as an incubator for the writers and artists (including Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and Enki Bilal) who would leave it in the 1970s to launch Metal Hurlant. Pilote was founded by two writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artist, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard. The four of them worked previously on comics supplements to newspapers as well as providing strips for magazines. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix le Gaulois, a humorous strip about a village of Dark Ages Gauls was Pilote’s biggest hit in the early days and served as the foundation on which the magazine was built. The magazine boasted a number of other popular series, too, such as Blueberry, Barbe-Rouge, and Valerian et Laureline.
Throughout the 1960s, the magazine continued to grow, and a number of France’s most prominent comic artists and series got their start in Pilote. However, by the time the 1970s rolled around, a lot of those same artists and writers felt that Pilote, despite attempts to update itself and remain relevant, was simply too restrictive and “kid friendly” (by French standards) for what they wanted to do. In 1974, contributors Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet, and Jean Giraud left Pilote to launch the publication group Les Humanoides Associes, responsible for the sci-fi and fantasy comic magazine Metal Hurlant. A number of other stalwarts of the Pilote stable — including Georges “Gebe” Blondeau, Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Jean-Marc Reiser, Gotlib, and Claire Bretecher (one of the few female comic artists working in France at the time) — left to join other magazines or start their own. Pilote was floundering and desperately in need of stability and some new talent. One of the additions to the stable that helped them cope with the mass exodus of talent was Jacques Tardi.
Tardi studied fine arts at the Ecole nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the Ecole nationale superieure des arts decoratifs in Paris. Shortly after graduating, he began working for Pilote, illustrating stories by Moebius and Serge de Beketch. In 1972, the young artist got the chance to launch his own original series in the magazine, a political thriller series called Rumeur sur le Rouergue. Tardi quickly found himself to be a very in-demand artist, working throughout the 1970s for Pilote and Metal Hurlant as well as adapting a number of novels into graphic format. In 1972, he created Adieu Brindavoine for Pilote, a series that established a universe in which two more of Tardi’s comics would also take place: La Fleur au fusil and Le Demon des glaces (aka The Arctic Marauder), both launched in 1974. Set during or in the years immediately before the outbreak of World War I, these adventure comics served as the template Tardi would follow when, in 1976, he was asked to create a new series. Tardi felt that, although male protagonists were the norm, French comics could do with a female heroine who was somewhat more refined than that saucy space girl Barbarella. So he created Edith Rabatjoie and placed her in his slightly askew version of the world in the days before World War I, positioning her as the female equivalent of Lucien Brindavoine, the hero from his earlier trio of adventures.
Of course, every confident, capable heroine needs a proper foil, and so Edith Rabatjoie was fitted with a suitable arch-enemy: Adele Blanc-sec. Tardi quickly discovered one problem with his new creation: he much preferred drawing Adele Blanc-sec. So Adele morphed from villain to heroine and main character, a globe-trotting journalist and woman of adventure with little regard for niceties such as the law or social expectations for women. In the character of Adele Blanc-sec, one can find aspects of several other great comic characters. There’s the daring anti-hero streak of the masterly gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, for example (a remnant, most likely, of Adele’s origin as a villain). There’s the intrepid can-do attitude and curiosity of Belgian comics sensation Tintin, with whom Adele shares a profession and propensity for showing up in the world’s more exotic locales. Tardi himself has said that Adele’s signature red hair and green dress was a direct reference to Becassine, a female comic character from the early 1900s who was sort of an illustrated embodiment of all the condescending traits upscale city dwellers attributed to their more provincial cousins.
Becassine was also one of the first French comic strips, and one of the longest running. The most obvious relationship between Becassine and Adele Blanc-sec, besides the dress, would be the latter’s position as someone who has achieved a certain status for her adventures while still remaining squarely outside the realm of what would be considered proper behavior for a young woman of standing. The difference is that Becassine was presented as a bumpkin character deserving of the ridicule of her social betters. There’s also more than a bit of classic pulp and comic hero in Adele Blanc-sec, like Bruce Wayne or even James Bond — shadowy heroes who occupy high society positions without actually fitting into them, partaking in extracurricular activities that would leave their high-stepping associates aghast.
It is traditional for the first film in any adaptation of a long-running comic series to be the origin story of the main character, even if the origin is so ingrained in pop culture that basically everyone knows it. Besson, however, decides that Adele Blanc-sec doesn’t need an origin story any more than Tintin does. She’s an adventuring reporter who gets into trouble that often has a supernatural element to it. End of origin. And so the film jumps into the plot basically mid-stream, culled from two Adele Blanc-sec comics (Momies en folie and the first of the Adele Blanc-sec adventures, Adèle et la Bête), which means viewers who are unfamiliar with the character might have to thrash a little bit at the beginning to keep up — at least until you understand that familiarity with the character’s backstory is unimportant. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-sec operates well within the realm of classic pulp adventure, which means you don’t have to know the character since you most likely already know the type of story she inhabits, and you can use that as a bridge.
Picking events up seemingly in the middle of things, we are introduced via a rapid-fire entry to a few different characters and plots. First, there is the elderly Professor Esperandieu (a heavily made-up Jacky Nercessian, who looks like no one so much as he does that fake old man who can’t stop himself from dancing wildly every time he’s confronted with the prospect of waiting in long lines at Six Flags), whose experiments with psychic powers lead to him hatching a living pterodactyl out of a one hundred million year old egg. Even though the old academic has some psychic sway over the dinosaur, it turns out it’s hard to make a pterodactyl behave in a way that is compatible with modern society, which means before too long, the beast is plucking up victims and making headlines. World-weary inspector Albert Caponi (Gilles Lellouche, also under a ton of prosthetic make-up) is assigned to the case, which soon brings him in contact with a couple of paleontologists from the local museum that housed the egg. One of the scientists, the handsome but awkward young Andrej Zborowski (Nicolas Giraud, who is not kitted out in prosthetics but does sport a jaunty mustache), also happens to have a crush on celebrity writer and adventurer Adele Blanc-sec.
Which finally introduces us to our title character (played by Louise Bourgoin), currently in the middle of an expedition in Egypt to recover a mummy. As is frequently the case with expeditions in these types of stories, her retainers seem to have been selected from the shiftiest and most deceitful the region has to offer. Why do they always hire the guy with crazy eyes, bad teeth, and a tendency to grin wolfishly while he picks at said teeth with a rusty knife? Her quest is complicated by the arrival of the dastardly Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric),whose sole purpose in life seems to be to foil anything Adele attempts. Recovery of this particular mummy seems to be much more than the culmination of an academic expedition for Adele. After some ancient tomb action scenes, she manages to escape the clutches of Dieuleveult and return to Paris with the mummy, where we soon learn that the mummy plays an integral part in Adele’s plan to cure her comatose sister, the tragic victim of a terrible hatpin accident during a tennis match.
Unfortunately for Adele, her plan also hinges on the psychic ability of Professor Esperandieu, recently outed as the cause of Paris’ pterodactyl issue and currently incarcerated and scheduled for execution. Her idea was to have him revive the centuries old mummy, the mummy being the pharaoh’s personal physician and possessed of specialized medical knowledge far in advance of anything the world of 1911 has to offer. Additional problems crop up when it turns out that the mummy is, in fact, the wrong mummy and not a physician at all but instead was the pharaoh’s personal nuclear physicist. It culminates in a delirious finale involving cops, big game hunters, flying dinosaurs, and of course tea-sipping gentleman mummies with advanced cravat-knotting skills. While Besson does not fall victim to the temptation to make this first film an origin story, he does fall victim to another common pitfall of the comic book adaptation: the temptation of cramming too many plot and characters from a long history of source material into a relatively short running time. The result is that, while Adele Blanc-sec’s stew of mummies, dinosaurs, and adventure remains consistently entertaining, it can also lose track of its own plot threads and characters.
Dieuleveult makes a grand entrance at the beginning of the film then disappears entirely, meaning that the movie forgets to include the man who was presumably the main villain. As such, this is a rare sort of adventure film with no main bad guy. Adele has something to accomplish, but her primary opponents are not villains and henchmen; they are instead circumstances. In addition to the lack of a bad guy, Adele Blanc-sec never manages to get its two main characters — Adele and Caponi — into the same scene even after the pterodactyl and mummy plots finally mingle. The movie keeps such a frantic pace that it never quite fully develops or ties everything together. Luckily, the sheer force of Louise Bourgoin’s charm pulls everything together no matter how frayed and tangled it may otherwise be. Her Adele is confident and forceful but not overbearing or self-centered. She is capable but not infallible, and every now and then, she needs help. Adele Blanc-sec would find a kindred spirit in Alexia Tarabotti, the heroine in Gail Carriger’s supernatural adventure/steampunk comedy of manners/romance series The Parasol Protectorate.
And in the end, any movie that includes dapper mummies and a woman saddling up a pterodactyl to soar over Paris can be forgiven the occasional lack of focus.