Luc Besson, the mastermind behind Leon and The Fifth Element, has shed his love for gritty action thrillers, and created a peculiar and whimsical Gallic fairytale that will almost certainly, almost intentionally, will not make it across the Atlantic. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is a fluttering and magical romp through a Paris filled with pterodactyls, Egyptian mummies, grunting policemen, and cocky big game hunters. It is a wonderfully absurdist, decadent farce without a smidgen of style or class.
Adele is a brazen bombshell of a heroine: she has the sort of ringlets and curves that have weakened men’s knees for centuries, and her brown eyes smoulder and purr until they flash with feisty energy. A director flirting with Hollywood might have had her racing around some Dystopian metropolis on a 15,000bhp motorbike, or guiding a gang of time-travelling pirates through Gary Oldman’s brain; but Besson isn’t flirting anymore… he isn’t even playing hard to get.
Adele’s extraordinary adventures see her Raiding a Tomb™ so that she can enlist the help of a Pharoah’s physician to cure her ailing sister. The physician’s death, a few thousand years ago, is a hurdle that might intimidate a lesser hero, but not Adele. She knows an ancient Parisian doctor who has mastered the ability to bring creatures back from the dead; but by the time she returns to Paris, the senile doctor has already bitten off more than he can chew bringing a pterodactyl back to life. The rest of the film continues in this farcical (and I don’t use that word negatively) mould, with big game hunters and pompous detectives hunting Adele and the pterodactyl across the Arrondissements of 1911 Paris.
This film feels much closer to Jean Pierre Jeunet than Luc Besson; and indeed Besson’s bulky compatriot might feel his feathers have been ruffled by this assault on his artistic territory. Besson has forgone any of the darkness of his iconic earlier work, and has thoroughly embraced the folkloric fantasy of Jeunet’s vision. The makeup is grotesque, reminiscent of Punch & Judy puppets in some antique Romany travelling show, and the whimsical treatment of this iconic city owes much more to Amelie than Leon.
At the opening, Besson is bursting with energy and eager to tell his story, but he isn’t really sure where to begin. We follow a number of openly irrelevant characters and catch snippets of information on the doctor’s metaphysical powers and the raising of the Pterodactyl, before zoning in on our heroine being lowered into the Pharoah’s tomb. From here, Besson never looks back. The long sequence in the tomb is pure Indiana Jones, without even a hint of irony or a twist of originality, but it perfectly frames the energetic nonsense and slapstick that is to come.
Spielberg and Lucas knew what they needed to do with Indiana Jones: thread the story from one chase to the next as seamlessly as possible. It is a shallow and predictable technique, but it is undeniably entertaining when done properly. That is what Besson did with The Fifth Element, and he has not lost this rousing and erratic ability over the past decade. Although most of the story takes place in Paris, it is a magical and surreal Paris that perfectly suits the tone of the story, and it never becomes boring as the characters race around in circles. The zipping speed of the storytelling even drips down into the minutiae of the editing, with cuts occurring on doors opening, or using visual cues with dialogue: the story never calms down for a second.