The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Written by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Photo from the article About halfway through Adèle Blanc-Sec, there’s a bit of brief nudity. Adèle, exhausted by the repeated failures of her efforts to help her catatonic sister Agathe, stands before the display case containing a mummy she has liberated from Egypt in the hope of finding a cure in ancient medical knowledge. With a wry quip to the mummy, she slips out of her dress, though this shot retains a chaste, Anglo-Saxon shoulders-and-up perspective. Shortly thereafter, we see her reading her mail in the bath, her hair damp and dangling, a glimpse of her nipples exposed between the strands of her hair and the waterline - as if we’ve caught Botticelli’s Venus in the private moments just before serving herself up on a seashell. Despite the brevity of the scene, and the lack of consequence of the nipples in question, such is our cultural obsession with sex that several commentators have mentioned the scene. Of course, there is the statutory obligation to note that the film ‘Contains Brief Nudity’, but some have also opined that the inclusion of such a ‘gratuitous’ scene spoils what might otherwise make excellent family viewing.

Of course, gratuity is partially a matter of cultural convention. Certainly, no mainstream Hollywood family movie would allow a casual nipple slip, however much time it spent ogling (barely) clothed female bodies. Yet the confused reception offered to Adèle's comparatively innocent and uneroticised breasts points to something more than the usual two-faced American puritanism at work. It suggests an unwillingness to address the subject of female power and agency apart from the subject of female objectification and sexuality. Because Adèle is unquestionably a strong woman, much of the audience viewing this film seems to be waiting for any opportunity to constrain that power by viewing her as a sexual object, even if the film itself offers them precious little encouragement. Nor is this the first time unwarranted sexual overtones have been read onto a recent heroine. Little more than a year ago, in a tirade which told us much more about the reviewer than the film, Chris Tookey’s now infamous review of Kick-Ass (2010) imposed a frankly baffling sexualised reading onto Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl. So why should characters like Adèle Blanc-Sec and Hit Girl, whose appearance and behaviour make little or no reference to explicit sexuality, excite such passionate protestations from the press?

In part, the blame - or at least the explanation - lies with the long tenure of the post-feminist action heroine at the box-office and on the small-screen. Luc Besson has experience in this area; his La Femme Nikita (1990) helped to set the standard for attractive, yet dangerous, waifs. Later incarnations, from the nuanced (Buffy) to the inane (Charlie’s Angels; Tomb Raider), began to coalesce into something like a coherent archetype. The post-feminist action heroine is both physically and mentally strong, intelligent, capable, and always, always sexy. In fact, far more than any other trait, her sexiness defines her. It is the symbol of her transgression of two sets of taboos, allowing her to be both object and subject, to thumb her nose both at the condescension of traditional masculinity and the constriction of a second-wave feminism suspicious of sexual display.

Nor is her sexiness incidental, the way it is with, for example, a wholly objectified Bond girl. The post-feminist action heroine works at her sexiness, comments on the moments when she feels its absence, and utilises it as a tool to accomplish her goals. This hyper-awareness of sexuality is acceptable, we are encouraged to believe, because it shows that she is in control over her own representation and aware of its implications. Of course such hyper-awareness also filters into the self-monitoring behaviour which is encouraged by what Angela McRobbie calls post-feminist media culture. More importantly for our purposes, it also filters into audience expectations of female movie heroes - making the ostentatious performance of conventional sexuality a sine qua non for any screen female with an ounce of agency.

However, the ubiquity of these kinds of representations may have prevented us from noticing that we seem to have arrived at a new era in which conventional sexiness is no longer the defining feature of powerful women. Recent films like Let the Right One In (2008), Kick-Ass (2010), Hannah (2011) and Adèle Blanc-Sec signal the arrival of female characters capable of being strong without necessarily being sexy. This does not mean that such characters will be free of troubling representational implications - the first three, for example, depict young women with significant psychological damage underlying their superhuman capabilities. Pleasantly, however, Adèle seems to be the exception to the trend.

A grown woman rather than a child, an independent-minded adventuress rather than a fetching sidekick, a driven sister rather than a devoted daughter, Adèle Blanc-Sec breaks from the tradition of the post-feminist heroine by revisiting the early 20th century origins of feminism. Rather than taking as her model the liberated women of contemporary society, with their competing pressures to be beautiful and capable, Adèle (as noted in the short review) is a women of her time: a rigid meritocrat concerned with capability rather than gender, and more with practicality than romance. The result is a heroine with a truly independent mind who will not easily be constrained - whether by the gender roles of her time or the gendered assumptions of our own. Far from ruining a family adventure movie with her ‘gratuitous’ sexuality, Adele (irrespective of her briefly exposed bosoms) provides a healthy dose of Gallic feminine confidence to startle contemporary cinema from its rote assumptions about the role played by powerful women on screen.

This Alternate Take was published on May 17, 2011.

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