As he revelled in the hysterical dystopia of the Fifth Element, so Besson relishes spinning a lush Edwardian Paris out of brass curios, opulent interiors, sumptuous dresses and perfectly curled moustaches. The film concerns the 1913 adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a feisty young journalist with a thoroughly modern sense of independence. Her unlikely quest: to revive a mummified physician of Ramses II who she believes will be able to rouse her comatose sister.
Adèle (originally a creation of French comic book artist Jacques Tardi) is not without adversity – she faces comically hideous villains, a recently hatched pterodactyl, and (perhaps most challenging) the bumblings and perfectly sketched bureaucracy of Paris’s hapless police force.
Bresson interweaves the fates of a dozen characters with a deft sense of whimsical chaos that keeps the film bounding along. The French dialogue crackles and the comedy ranges from broad slapstick to subtler gags – an ancient Egyptian’s puzzled contemplation of a painting of Christ is particularly enjoyable.
Resistant as you might be, affection for Adèle (Louise Bourgoin) is tough to avoid. Of course she is abundantly beautiful and anachronistically capable, but more endearing are her hot temper, increasing exasperation with the male buffoons out to hamper her and single-minded dedication to her scheme.
The film is quietly in love with Paris, but eschews overused vistas to bring us a fresher, more surreal stage for the film’s madcap humour, with a subtle but excellent feel for light. Pterodactyl-spotting from the Eiffel tower and some lovely uses of the city’s greenery particularly stand out. The costume design is achingly lovely.
One or two CGI flight scenes are pretty shaky, and Gilles Lellouche’s dozy Inspecteur a little Clouseau for comfort. The emotional sections are sometimes a hard sell – we simply like Adèle best when she is firing out one-liners (“Is this a cab or a B&B?”) rather than baring her soul. The ending seems a cruel historical gag, but must have appealed to Besson’s sense of the absurd.
Style more than substance is the order of the day, but overall the silliness rarely grates. A beautifully imagined film with all of Besson’s anarchic sense of fun – it’s difficult not to be charmed.