French filmmaker Luc Besson has been responsible for some of the most enduring contemporary films from action thrillers like Nikita and Leon the Professional, to a personal science fiction cult favourite of mine The Fifth Element. Of late he has chosen to relinquish the director's chair and taking up story, scriptwriting and producing duties at his Europa Corp, although taking the chair back again with more family friendly adventures such as The Minimoys series, adapted from his series of children's books. His latest live-action adventure adapts from Jacques Tardi's series of comic books featuring a female adventurer quite like in the mold of Indiana Jones.
Adele Blanc-Sec (Louis Bourgoin) is smart, resourceful, and quite the alpha-female go-getter with a dash of sassiness about her, and these are precisely the kind of characters I suppose Luc Besson has been comfortable dealing with in his filmography. His Adele doesn't equip herself with weapons other than a rapid wit and a sharp tongue to disarm her enemies, setting her sights at far flung adventures where her publisher would send her to, though at times like this film, decide to detour and follow her own agenda. And for those taken in by the subtitle of the film promising something along the lines of Stephen Sommer's The Mummy films, let's just say to drop those expectations, because there isn't any Imhotep to lock horns with.
Besson keeps you guessing for the most parts as he unravels the story before you, opting to place you in suspense as you figure out how the multiple sub plot lines will come together and make relatable sense. It assumes that you have some knowledge of the basis of the lead character, but fills you in along the way nonetheless. With plot devices such as a Pterodactyl hatched from an egg in a museum and now taking to the skies of Paris, the attempts to capture that flying dinosaur by inept hunter Justin de Saint-Hubert (Jean-Paul Rouve), a promise of a romance between the shy scientist Andrej Zborowski (Nicholas Giraud) and Adele, and the need for Adele to steal a mummy from Egypt, all boil down to the extreme lengths the titular adventurer will go to save a family member.
Of course there's a need to keep things balanced up, so in contrast to the more dogged Adele comes on the side of the law, the bumbling police inspector Leonce Caponi (Gilles Lellouche) with a penchant for food, a need to be found from the mysterious psychic powers of ally Marie-Joseph Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian), and a clash of good and evil with the villainy of an unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric as Dieuleveult with whom Adele crosses with early on in the story. It's a pity though that Amalric's screen presence was limited as his character Dieuleveult had so much potential, but the extraordinary adventures were indeed split down to Adele's quest, and everything else, peppered with a handful of quirky characters set to entertain, and a series of wry humour especially on that oh-so-familiar critique of society's top down approach to get things done which was brilliantly executed.
There''s no scrimping on the production values of this period piece set just before WWI and an infamous tragedy that marked the dangers of human arrogance, which should make a follow up film quite interesting should the filmmakers pick up from where they left off. Incredible production sets and costumes are what beautify the film, and the CG effects used to enhance the viewing experience went fuss-free, although it didn't break much new ground since movie audiences weaned on the Hollywood Mummy franchise would already be accustomed to how mummies move and behave, albeit with less civility.
Unfortunately though, the film did not manage to survive unscathed. I was looking forward to a scene where our heroine would be sitting in the bathtub and reading out letters of infatuation written by Andrej as she had hinted she would, only for a quick jump cut made and you're left high and literally dry. Having watched the dubbed English version during this screening, I will recommend that you head on to The Cathay to watch this so that you can immerse yourself in the aural pleasures of the French language and get by through the English subtitles (if you don't speak French) because while it's a relatively competent voice cast trying their best to emote as they could, I'm quite the stickler for authenticity and whatever's coming out of a character's mouth to be in sync with their lip movement, and have to struggle not to be too perturbed by it.
The opening film of this year's French Film Festival in Singapore, don't walk out just yet when the credits roll, as there's a coda that comes up midway. Don't berate what's essentially a fantasy piece that occasionally found pleasure dwelling on the absurd, but prepare for something that's visually gorgeous, narratively unusual and outlandishly entertaining.