The promotion team for The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec provided this interview with Jacques Tardi, the original comic creator. I’m reprinting it here because I admire Mr. Tardi’s attitude toward a movie adaptation of his graphic novel series and his inspiration for the lead character.
Where did you get the idea for the character of Adèle-Blanc-Sec?
The Casterman comic book publishing house saw my early work and commissioned me to make a series. I needed a main character to drive it. To be honest, I didn’t have many ideas. It was in the 1970s, and back then I leaned more towards stand-alone albums. Despite that, the concept was attractive, so I began to check out various comic book heroes, who were mostly male characters — racing drivers, aviators, soldiers, cowboys and cops — with very few female characters except for Bécassine, a provincial maid who didn’t even have a mouth, and Barbarella, in a more erotic register. That’s where I got the idea for a female character who’d be the equal of all these male heroes.
I have always been interested in the serial novels that were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most famous in France was Arsène Lupin, who made his first appearance in 1910. As a result, I decided that my heroine would be a contemporary of his.
There was also the question of what she could possibly do as a job because, when you take a closer look, most comic book heroes except soldiers don’t have a clearly defined profession. You never see them at work, you don’t know how they earn a living or how they actually live. Of course, my heroine wasn’t going to run a building contractor’s, but she could do the same job as me and, transposed back to 1910, that meant she’d be a writer of serial novels.
We see her at her typewriter from time to time or with her publisher, and she talks about her work. Even if we don’t see her working very often, it gives us an indication of her lifestyle and standard of living. She’s not from a wealthy family, she’s an independent woman who works for a living and is resolutely modern, not at all in the mindset of women of the period.
Finally, I needed a setting. I use locations in Paris because I enjoy drawing them. I like museums a lot because they inspire me and, in particular, the botanical gardens with its glass roof, the display cases and all the scientific paraphernalia they contain.
So, I had my character and the starting point of a story, the botanical gardens and — long before Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, I’d like to point out — a 136 million-year-old pterodactyl egg that would hatch and spread terror over Paris in the 1900s.
Where does the fantasy dimension in Adèle Blanc-Sec come from?
Fritz Lang, for the fantasy aspect, and Jules Verne, for the “inventing things out of nothing” aspect, which makes for quite a poetic-scientific combination of breathtaking situations and off-the-wall stories that don’t quite add up but you let yourself be whisked along in an almost childlike way.
Did you think Adèle Blanc-Sec could be turned into a movie?
As soon as the first album was published, the Japanese wanted to make a cartoon series, but the changes they wanted made an adaptation impossible. An American studio was also interested. Their adaptation was so “American” that my heroine and her world lost their identity, so the project went no further. Then, various TV production companies showed an interest. Finally, ten years ago, Luc Besson called me.
Overall, is the screenplay faithful to the spirit of your comic books?
Basically, I’d say no, it isn’t, because you have to accept that an adaptation is a betrayal — and after adapting a number of novels into a comic book format I know what I’m talking about. When you change format, you change the means of expression and the way of telling a story is different. A comic book is a succession of still images, snapshots that tell a story and that the reader can come back to or linger over. In a movie, the director controls time, sets the pace, decides to have a close-up of a face, an object, etc.
Then, there’s the concept of a series. When I start working on a story, I never manage to fall on my feet — it often goes off in all directions. In the end, I often fall back on the old serial-novel trick, “to be continued”. At the same time, I implicitly promise the readers things without actually knowing if I’ll be able to keep my promises. In the movies, it’s different. You need an ending, even though you can leave open the possibility of a sequel. The narrative functions in different ways in movies and in comic books.
The difference is even more blatant in the treatment of the characters. In a movie, a minor character or extra can’t suddenly take over from the main character whereas, in a comic book, they can. I sometimes allow myself to take a huge detour through very secondary characters who suddenly become very important to the story, simply because I enjoy drawing them. That’s exactly what happened to Edith Rabatjoie. Initially, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec was going to be called The Adventures of Edith Rabatjoie. It’s just that I got no enjoyment out of drawing the character and when Adèle appeared in the story to abduct her, she also took over the lead role in the series.
To my mind, the only thing movies and comic books have in common are pictures.
What do you think of the choice of actress to play Adèle Blanc-Sec?
The actress had to be able to get into Adèle’s personality, to become Adèle psychologically and display the same mental traits. It would have been ridiculous to choose an actress because she looked just like the Adèle I drew, especially as she evolved physically over the course of the series — the Adèle in the first albums looks quite different than the Adèle in the last ones. Gradually, she changed, became a bit caricatural, her nose turned up more, all because I don’t like to suffer when I’m working. Some comic book artists do very precise sketches then ink them in. I do very rough sketches that only take shape when I start inking, touching up and adding color. As a result, my characters gradually change and develop. I’d say that Louise Bourgoin was an excellent choice because her performance captures the spirit of the character. On screen, she becomes the feisty, independent and inquisitive heroine, who turns out to be quite anachronistic in relation to the period.
Do the sets have particular importance for you?
The sets and locations are essential. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec takes place just before the First World War in very loaded settings, in apartments where there isn’t a single square inch of free space. I like locations that are brimming over because it’s always more interesting to draw an old chair or an old bistro table with very ornate legs rather than a formica table. I prefer to draw 19th century buildings rather than modern constructions, for which I have to work out the geometry — that annoys me. In my stories, the decoration is also an element that adds to the narrative, like the mummy that is part of the décor and becomes a character in the story. I also need objects that represent the action I’m describing. I don’t have the same flexibility as a writer. Actually, I face the same problems as a movie set designer.
Mathieu Amalric says he finds your comic book series “very sexual”. What do you think?
Of course, the issue of Adèle’s sexuality was raised very early on, but you have to go back to the context of the period when I wrote the first albums. In the 1970s, there was no way I could show Adèle having sex, so I tried to get round the problem with an allusive approach. For example, we realize that she wants to save Lucien Ripol from the guillotine because she loves him. There’s also the sequence in which Zborowsky, who is in love with Adèle, has a dream in which she’s semi-naked running on the top of a cliff surrounded by prehistoric animals. It wasn’t an attempt at eroticism, but having a heroine who is definitely very modern for her times, it seemed natural for her to have a sex-life. In the depiction of the character, the only slightly erotic image of Adèle is when she’s in the bath. It’s a pause in the story. Adèle thinks things over in the bath and it was a pleasure to draw her like that.
In the comic book, Dieuleveult hates Adèle, but isn’t he also clearly attracted to her?
It’s obvious that the bad guys who are out to get Adèle are also attracted to her. A lot of people would like to get rid of her, but she’s impossible to kill off, and that helps me to keep the story moving forward. Everybody has a motive to get her –sometimes not because of something she’s done, like the episode when a dentist gives her a filling using a special alloy used for drill bits that the bad guys want to use to crack a safe. I like playing with situations like that.
In the movie, isn’t the relationship between the two characters more ambiguous?
Most likely, but it could be Dieuleveult’s overriding hatred towards Adèle that masks the attraction. Some characters hate Adèle from the very beginning. They call her “that Blanc-Sec woman”. The scientists, for example, who all have the word “dieu” (God) in their names — Dieuleveult, Esperandieu — which is a way of mocking them because they all think they’re superior beings working for the good of humankind. The police officers, like Caponi, don’t like Adèle very much either. And then there are more ambiguous, minor characters, some of whom I retrieved from other albums.
Generally, I find it more interesting to have mad scientists, like the one who appears in one of the final Adèle episodes and who dies in an accident almost immediately, or bad guys. Hitchcock used to say that a film was good if there was a good bad guy.
Do you think the series has a political message?
No, it’s just what you read every day in the newspapers — rotten police officers, corrupt politicians — a truly frightening list. Adèle is an anarchist — she has no God and no master. She’s incredibly suspicious of the institutions of power. But Adèle is definitely not a political comic book. That really isn’t the point of it.
All your characters have extreme physical characteristics. Why?
It’s true that they have a certain disconcerting beauty, but I like drawing characters like that, with high cheekbones, pointed noses and black clothes. It’s the influence of expressionist German cinema on my art and it flows easily from my pen! Obviously, bringing that to life on screen requires a lot of work in make-up.
Tell us about Adèle’s sister…
In the comic book, Adèle discovers the existence of her sister very late on, and they develop an immediate dislike of each other. Mireille (Agathe in the film) is convinced that Adèle, her sister, is out to steal her fiancé, which is completely untrue. So why introduce the sister? I needed another female character who was very different than Adèle, and I also wanted to introduce a family element that unsettles Adèle, in the same way as I wanted to show she had a job. It’s a means of anchoring the character in reality and giving her roots.
Why does Adèle always wear a green coat?
Because of Bécassine, who was first female comic book character in the early 20th century. Adèle is a kind of anti-Bécassine, and she’s a redhead so the colors match wonderfully.
You’ll soon be releasing the tenth Adèle album. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I’m going to release the tenth and last album because I think the series needs a conclusion. I feel a need to round it off.
What were your feelings on set?
Great admiration for Luc Besson and the strong sense that it’s much easier to bring characters to life on paper!