The biggest surprise of my brief year at the movies is this adventure comedy from France. Just when I thought that it could be downhill from the summer’s smorgasbord of entertainment, comes Luc Besson’s “Adele: Rise of the Mummy,” also known as “Adèle: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec,” a film that is as breezy as the best light comedies and as heady as the dry white wine designation in the heroine’s name. And for the kids, it’s a cool treat that’s as colorful as it’s educational.
The author, graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, found his match in the international director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Leon”). Tardi, a Grand Prix winner of the Ville d’Angouleme international competition for comic illustrators, shilly-shallied for 10 years before granting film rights to his work.
The country that gave us Jean-Luc Godard and the New Wave directors, and inducted U.S. comedian Jerry Lewis into its Legion of Honor, holds the comics in high regard. The French call them “bande dessinée,” literally, comic strip but a wide enough definition to include illustrated serials, comic books and graphic novels. Over there, critics and experts can sit for hours debating the difference between bande dessinée as a concept and as a medium. But they all agree that the comics are “the ninth art.”
It’s 1912, in the last years of the Belle Époque, over two decades of prosperity and social and technological progress in Europe before the First World War. France is enjoying its second industrial boom. In England, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet — or whoever they were in the movie — are preparing to board the RMS Titanic.
(***SPOILER ALERT*** The following may contain details that could spoil your viewing pleasure.***)
In Paris, at the natural history museum of Jardin des Plantes, a pterodactyl hatches after 135 million years of gestation, breaks through the glass roof and starts to sow panic, devour sheep and menace very important people. The event is a triumph for aged physicist Marie-Joseph Esperandieu (a venerable Jacky Nercessian), whose telekinetic powers and experiments with dead organic matter can bring museum creatures back to life.
His powers are of great interest to successful journalist, author and adventuress Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) whose latest bestseller is “The Ice Monster.” She is desperate to find a way to give life back to her younger sister, a dead but physically intact woman who sits in bed staring into the void. Adèle believes that the key lies with Patmosis, the personal physician of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh, Ramses II. To this end, she makes a secret trip to the Sahara to locate Patmosis’s tomb and steal the mummy. If the professor could resurrect Patmosis, he could then share his formula for renewing life.
Comic books, as well as fantasy adventure movies, celebrate incredible concepts and “Adèle: The Rise of the Mummy” thrives on them. That’s why even adults love the genre; they can relive those days when believing was easy — a resurrection, as it were, of their lost youth. Hence, the intrepid Adèle is able to smuggle Patmosis’s mummy to Paris after a close call with death, then she jumps from adventure to misadventure among a cast that includes a chronically hungry police chief inspector and his bumbling cops, a young archaeologist who secretly adores her, the French president himself and the official hunter and liquidator of the winged monster from the Jurassic period.
The pace of the story is hectic at times but mostly it bubbles with setbacks, suspense and surprises that never leave the zone of lighthearted fun. It slows down when it has to focus on something more serious, such as Adèle’s love for her doomed sister, or something sweet and romantic, such as what happens toward the end.
This is not a film that goes all out for the big laughs. Indeed the comedy is hamstrung by the French original, where Bourgoin apparently speaks her lines in ra-ta-tat fashion. The voice she gets is young, British and fits her talkative persona. But no matter how hard the translation tries to capture the meaning of the text, hoping that an English sort of humor will come through, they are in many instances wasted.
Some jokes, black humor among them, should be clearer upon a second viewing. But there are quips that only the French would catch, such as in-jokes about politics, cuisine and the Louvre museum. Besson is neither a cabaretist nor a stand-up comic and his sense of timing is unsure, so he goes after the big picture instead: a comic romp filled with slapstick, visual delights and optimism.
Surprising Miss Météo de Canal+
Clearly having the most fun is the surprising Bourgoin, the reigning Miss Météo de Canal+ (she was voted as France’s most liked TV weather announcer). Adèle does to her what Amélie did to Audrey Tautou, that is, make her a star. Petulant, insouciant and unflappable as the heroine, Bourgoin brings to the role a feminist image that was extraordinary in early 20th century France, where women were not allowed to vote until 1944. Imagine a young Annette Bening or Diane Keaton playing Indiana Jones and you’ll have an idea of how much she achieves.
Also having a great time are production designer Hugues Tissandier and costume designer Olivier Bériot who rise high above their tasks to deliver a look of comic-book fantasy and the feel of the Belle Époque, the first time it has been evoked since “Titanic.” Many of the main characters here are mere caricatures of their actors, thanks to prosthetics. They were made to look fatter, uglier or more repulsive with crooked or bulbous noses, bad teeth, bushy eyebrows or blotchy skin. For example, Mathieu Amalric, the actor who plays obese police informer Dieuleveult, the one with the bloated nose, is actually a handsome and medium-built man. And Adèle has an amusing sequence where she takes on six disguises in an attempt to free the condemned Esperandieu (literally, waiting for God).
Adèle’s fantastic collection of plumed hats and chic gowns wouldn’t be out of place in “My Fair Lady.” And note the hundreds of ways men of that epoch wore their beards and moustaches! From the set pieces to the décor, the art directors of the movie did their research and purchasing with a museum curator’s passion.
For the younger set, they made the movie as entertaining as much as it’s educational. Except for two necessary scenes of violence, the first of which the audience found funny, it is a benign and even uplifting experience. The props richly mirror the state of technology 100 years ago, such as the vehicles, the Remington typewriter, and the telephone. In one scene, Dieuleveult takes a test to measure the amount of alcohol in his breath, an ancient version of the Breathalyzer, which was not patented until 1954. That sounds like an anachronism, or perhaps Besson’s petit joke on us.
If this movie were in a contest for excellence in computer graphic imagery, it would have a null chance of winning. Its klutzy pterodactyl has little of the realism of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic creatures, although its band of risen mummies, so regal and witty, is a digital marvel too. In one outdoor scene, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica looms in the background of a sheep grazing ground — an accurate digital collage since Montmarte must have been a rural suburb of Paris at that time. Besson leaves it to the richer studios to chase the more super, more hyper and even more mega technical achievement crown.
In France, “Adèle: Rise of the Mummy” has received mixed reviews. Some critics were disappointed by the movie’s disregard for the dark tone of the original Franco-Belgian bande dessinée but another said that “Besson has made a film more visually faithful in tone than that of the famous comic strip, and more glamorous, too.” Another added: “The degradation of Tardi’s story will surely enrich entertainment and the genre, but I’m afraid that Besson’s ability to master the comic art is quite feeble.” It would be interesting to know how the movie will be received across the Atlantic and elsewhere.
At the end of the movie, we get a hint of Besson’s possible idea for a sequel. We find Adèle in England, about to depart for New York and ready to board, together with DiCaprio and Winslet –- or whomever they play in the film –- the RMS Titanic. ☺