The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Louise Bourgoin in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

31 May

 

Ramesses II becomes pharaoh of Egypt, 1279BC

On this day in 1279BC, the king often called Ramesses (or Rameses, or Ramses) the Great, became pharaoh of Egypt. Known as Ozymandias by the Greeks, the pharaoh most remembered by history was a great military campaigner and a great builder of cities, temples and monuments. He became pharaoh in his late teens and ruled for the following 66 years. The Egyptian army consisted of about 100,000 men, and he used it to wage war against the Hittites and Nubians, routed the Sherden sea pirates who were harrying ships on the Mediterranean coast, thrust into modern-day Syria and Lybia. At home he undid many of the religious reforms of the Amarna period, returning Egypt to polytheism. After 30 years of rule, Ramesses himself became a god. He moved the capital of Egypt to a new city, Pi-Ramesses. He had many memorials to previous emperors remodelled to look like himself. He built Abu Simbel, the temples carved out of the mountainside, and the temple now called the Ramesseum, designed to keep the memory of Ramesses alive after his death, the “temple of a million years”, as well as a glorious tomb to the most important of his consorts, Nefertari. He died, in his 90s, possibly of an infection caused by a dental abscess, and was succeeded by his 13th son. His mummified body can now be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

 

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, dir: Luc Besson)

Though Luc Besson started out as a director (early films include Subway and Nikita), in recent years he’s been so occupied with the production side of things that he’s not got behind the camera so much. He made an exception for this adaptation of one of Jacques Tardi’s comic books – big in France, ignored most every other place – about a kind of female Indiana Jones, daring, drily witty and so proud of bearing that almost all who encounter her bend to her will. Louise Bourgoin plays journalist and adventurer Blanc-Sec (Dry White, in French) and is charming, pretty and haughty enough to carry off the role (think young Mary Poppins rather than Edwardian Lara Croft). It’s a knotty, tangly plot, with Adèle on a “this time it’s personal” mission to save her comatose sister, aided by resuscitated Egyptian mummies, an old gent who knows how to waken the deeply somnolent and a pterodactyl swooping around Paris terrorising people. There isn’t a non-eccentric character in it, there is a lot of running around, it’s all shot with deep chocolate-box filtration and there’s a clever mix of physical, stop motion and true CG effects. It’s Jules Verne steampunk meets the whimsy of Amélie and Besson clearly wants it to work. So why have most people not heard of this charming, exciting, fun film? Maybe some of the swoops from inventive to kitsch are a bit maddening, and certainly the stabs at humour are, for the most part, utterly unfunny (seen one pterodactyl crapping on the head joke, seen em all). Or maybe for most people this just isn’t what you’d associate with a “French film” – where’s the long talky stuff, the gamine girls, the nudity? But, come on, you’ve got to admire a movie with this much drive and plot, and with a breakout performance that singles Bourgoin out as a talent to watch. It’s a better, more intelligent, more coherent film than Spielberg’s Tintin, which it superficially resembles. But will we ever see the last two legs of the trilogy which was originally intended? It seems not. Never mind, we’ll always have Paris (menaced by a flying dinosaur).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great piece of entertaining adventure
  • Louise Bourgoin’s starmaking performance
  • Matthieu Amalric, almost unrecognisable beneath the prosthetics
  • The extraordinary production design by Hugues Tissandier

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

District 13

David Belle in District B13

 

 

Free-running is the gimmick powering this actioner scripted and produced by French action powerhouse Luc Besson and also known as District B13 (B is for “Banlieue”). Set in a broken-down Paris in the near future, District 13 has an Escape from New York kind of vibe and follows a tough cop (Cyril Raffaelli) and a gangland desperado (David Belle) into a walled-off urban badland to sort out the guys who’ve nicked a nuclear weapon (it was the US president in Escape from New York). But back to the free-running, or le parkour as its French originators (one of whom is David Belle himself) call it – the adrenalised athletic stuntorama that could simply be described as “running and jumping”, if you wanted to piss off everyone who does it. Every time the action threatens to slow down and reveal the film as little more than a lot of bullet-headed guys in black vests shouting at each other, the leaping, running and jumping starts up again. And, quite honestly, what more does an action film need than action?

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

District 13 – at Amazon

 

 

 

Jean Reno: The Bulletproof Star

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Léon

In a long career that’s seen him starring in films good, bad and spectacularly terrible, the public’s affection for French icon Jean Reno has never wavered. How does he do it?

Big guy. Woolly hat. Stubble. Shades. Round shades. Dark round shades. Doesn’t say much. Kills people. Sensitively. Ask a roomful of people to come up with a word or two about Jean Reno and that’s pretty much what you’d get.

You might also get French. Likes his dinner. And cool. Very cool. But what about versatile? Best known for playing loners, hitmen, tough guys, individuals who don’t say much because they don’t have to, to most people Reno is that French guy in that hitman film. Léon, or Nikita or whatever it was.

Which of course is true, Reno was that guy and those were the films. But there’s more to Reno than just a guy with a gun.

Take The Philosopher. The short about a guy who’s got it all who one day decides to give it all away. No shades. No hat. A bit of stubble, granted, but he’s just a normal guy who just kind of snaps one day and decides “that’s it, I want a simple life. It’s all gotta go.“

And off, indeed, it does all go. The Reno trick, though, is that as the stuff goes so do we. With him. To wherever he’s going.

He pulls off the same trick in 2010’s 22 Bullets, a revenge movie about a killer who is pumped full of bullets, 22 of them to be precise, and somehow survives. And then sets out for some very ugly payback. Nasty piece of work. But we’re with him all the way. Which is handy because, Reno excepted, 22 Bullets is not much of a film.

But it is vintage Reno, just the sort of likeable bad-guy role that made his name. It also made him, in a recent French poll, the country’s most popular actor.

All good. Except that Reno isn’t actually a native Frenchman. The man baptised Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jimenez was actually born in Casablanca, Morocco, to Spanish exiles of Franco’s fascist regime.

In the 64 years since, he’s collected three wives and five children, starred in France’s biggest box office hit, become the go-to man when the script calls for brutes with an angelic streak and the only French male star who could open a film in the USA (before the arguments start – Depardieu’s Green Card was a co-starring role).

The breakout role for Reno in the English-speaking world was as the titular hitman in the film Léon (also known as Léon: The Professional). And it’s a perfect example of this Reno phenomenon. The story of a killer who strikes up a master/pupil relationship with a pre-pubescent orphan (a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman), it’s the sort of plot that would probably not get made in the timid paedo-panicked world we inhabit today. Even back then it had producers and distributors sweating buckets and was heavily edited on its initial US run, a move which virtually removed the Reno/Portman relationship from the film, thus ruining it.

That it got made at all, even in comparatively permissive 1993, was down to two things. First, it was Reno. This is a proper man we’re talking about here, not some skulking sexual pervert with an eye for jailbait. Second, it wasn’t an American film, though it looked like one and, Reno apart, sounded and felt like one.

In fact it was a Luc Besson film, the first serious attempt by the French writer/director/producer/powerhouse to crack the USA, to take on Hollywood at its own game.

Besson is now so prolific and so successful that he’s almost disappeared into the oligarchosphere. The creator of franchises like the Taxi series, the Transporter series, a fistful of Jet Li films, kiddie movies like the Arthur and the Invisibles series, action movies like District 13, thrillers like the Liam Neeson hit Taken, sci-fi like The Fifth Element, Besson hasn’t yet had a go at silent German expressionist horror but it’s surely only a matter of time.

But back in 1993 it was a different matter. Besson was an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, though a string of French films aimed squarely at a smart multiplex crowd had provided him with the weight he needed to break Hollywood. His battering ram was Jean Reno.

Reno had starred in Besson’s first film, 1981’s short L’avant dernier. After that he went on to take roles in Besson’s next offerings, the punky post-apocalyptic sci-fi The Last Battle and the grungily beautiful Subway, before making waves in the archetypal “cinema du look” movie The Big Blue. After that followed the junky hitgirl drama Nikita, in which Reno played Victor the Cleaner and perfected the stubble/shades/hat look that is all his own. Then, finally, came the film that made both Reno and Besson international players, Léon.

Looking back now we can see what Besson was doing. 1983’s The Last Battle completely turned its back on traditional French moviemaking – which you could unfairly but with some justification characterise as “bourgeois couple stare out of window, make love, stare out of window again” – and plugged into the Hollywood genre mainstream.

1985’s Subway saw Besson casting Christopher Lambert, the bilingual star of the Tarzan movie Greystoke, as his male lead. 1988’s The Big Blue had a co-starring role for American actress Rosanna Arquette while Léon, from 1994, was made entirely in English.

From the very start Besson showed no interest in making moody French cinema for the arthouse circuit. He wanted to make movies as big as Hollywood made them. Bigger even. To do that he needed his films to be shot in English. Or, failing that, peopled with characters an English-speaking audience would go for. Enter Reno, the sort of guy men want to be and women want to be with.

Jean Reno in Nikita
Reno in Nikita



Since Léon Reno has continued working with Besson (who produced 22 Bullets, for example) and has divided his time pretty well, making films for the French market and turning up regularly as a cool French presence in a run of Hollywood hits.. Alongside Robert De Niro in Ronin, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code and Meg Ryan (when she was still recognisably Meg Ryan) in French Kiss.

At home meanwhile he starred in the time-travel comedy Les Visiteurs, the most expensive French film ever made, and the biggest moneyspinner in French box office history.

So he’s a success. A big star globally and back home. Three wives. The public loves him. Always working. But what about the critics?

Ask Reno himself and he’ll tell you he’s not part of the establishment. In fact he reckons he’s cold-shouldered by critics and the intelligentsia and the real inner circle of French cultural life because he’s so popular. “In France, if you’ve got any sort of talent you’d better keep it here,” he told the UK’s Independent newspaper recently. “And if you’re going to go abroad, it had better not be America.”

It seems Reno is the victim of an old gallic tendency. No one in Europe loves America more than the French, but the French are also acutely aware that you dance with the US at your peril. When it comes to a smackdown between America’s fast-food culture and la manière de vie francaise with its three hour lunches and afternoon naps, then Uncle Sam wins every time.

So French cultural gatekeepers are snooty with Reno, even though the tax the government levies on all foreign films – many of them featuring Reno himself – subsidises homegrown production. And let’s not forget just how vibrant and well loved (and watched) French cinema remains worldwide, to a large extent precisely because of that subsidy.

People go with Reno. They love him. He’s friends with former President Nicolas Sarkozy. In fact the then Interior Minister was best man at Reno’s third wedding in 2006, alongside Johnny Hallyday, a pop icon in France for 50 years.

But Reno has street-level appeal too. Perhaps because of what he’s not as well as what he is. Look at the list of international leading men and it is groaning with actors with lovely hair, moisturised skin, bleached teeth and waxed chests, guys who need to stay hydrated, who fixate on diet, bodyfat percentages and protein shakes – all the paraphernalia of the bulimic teenage girl.

Sure Matthew McConaughey looks buff in those perfume ads, his lips parted like a blow-up dolly. Sure Ryan Reynolds is toned and sleek, his chest more impressive than most of his female co-stars’. Sure Hugh Jackman – well, Hugh, where do we start?

You don’t get that with Reno. Like some latterday John Wayne, whom Reno idolised as a drama student, Reno doesn’t do dental bleaching or built-up shoes. With Reno you get old-fashioned masculinity – proud, hirsute, self-assured, not concerned overly with externals, courteous, dangerous when pushed.

And now that Gérard Depardieu has pretty much retired to his vineyards to become a barrel, Reno is about the only French male actor who really translates worldwide.

Most famous for playing hitmen, Reno himself has started to become bulletproof. How else can you explain the undying affection of everyone (arthouse critics excepted) in the face of some spectacularly terrible career choice. In short, have you seen The Da Vinci Code?

There’s worse, far worse. It’s difficult to know what persuaded Reno to turn up doing the comedy Frenchman routine in the remake of the Pink Panther. Apart from the paycheck, perhaps. The money must have been even better for the infinitely more moronic sequel. Or maybe Reno just felt sympathy for Steve Martin, whose decision to revive a role that virtually killed its original star, Peter Sellers, has virtually killed his own career (I say virtually, but Martin’s movie career has a remarkable ability to return from the dead. Which must surely be some consolation to Lindsay Lohan).

Reno is the man who turned down the role of Agent Smith in The Matrix – Mis-ter An-der-son – to play second banana to Matthew Broderick in 1997’s damp phhht Godzilla. Godzilla!

And if you haven’t seen Couples Retreat – the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau relationship comedy featuring Reno as a “couples whisperer” – then here’s a one-word recommendation. Don’t.

The strange thing: in interview after interview Reno seems as happy with, say, the role of hitman Vincent the Cleaner in the seminal Nikita as he is with some godawful load of old rubbish made simply to support popcorn sales.

His explanation is that he just loves working, being on a film set. His unbroken chain of film credits on the Internet Movie Database suggests this might be true. Apart from a pause for breath just after he got married for the third time in 2006, Reno has been at it virtually non-stop for the past 30 years.

Film star years aren’t the same as real years. Spending downtime in luxury resorts, having staff to take care of the bad stuff and always travelling first class can add years to your lifespan. Even so, at 64 Reno must surely be aware that the clock is ticking.

There were rumours he was lining up something for the London stage in 2012, a return to theatre, his first love. It didn’t happen. But there are also more than five films in the pipeline, including the starring role in a biopic about Rasputin, and he recently turned up in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent mess Margaret. Not forgetting Fantomas, a remake of the classic of the French silent screen which will have to be quite amazing if it’s going to keep the critics quiet.

Let’s hope it is. But whether it’s brilliant work or down in sump with those The Pink Panther films, one thing’s for certain. Everyone will love Reno. They always do.

© Steve Morrissey 2011