Dir: Enki Bilal. Fr-UK-It. 2004 102 mins.
A futuristic take on the Greek myth of Amphitryon, set in New York City in 2095, Immortel is the visually exciting third feature from Enki Bilal, the Belgrade-born artist who is one of the dominant figures in European comic strip art. Using a darkly baroque blend of live action and flesh-and-blood actors with computer-generated animation and characters, Bilal has produced one of the more strikingly credible strip-to-screen makeovers of recent years that is likely to please both the comic strip crowd and aficionados of sci-fi movies.
In France, where the comic strip (or 'bande dessine') is considered the 'eighth art' (cinema being the seventh), this Euros 23m English-language production has soared to near the head of the box office, taking around $2.8m from a 400-screen rollout after one week. It has also erased the critical and commercial bad taste left by such recent failures to capture the adult end of the comic book market as Michel Vaillant and Blueberry.
Overseas it is unlikely to attain quite the same impact, although it will be worth a look from specialist outfits, especially on ancillary. Its best chance, however, is possibly Japan, where Bilal's Tykho Moon (1996) was a big hit thanks to its offbeat comic-book sensibility and where Immortel's stylish, polished and original look will likely also prove popular.
Bilal, whose two previous movies (Bunker Palace Hotel in 1989 and Tykho Moon) were both live-action fantasies that had their moments but overall failed to catch fire on the screen, has here hit on a hybrid technique in which live actors play central roles while CG characters people the rest of the cast. The final effect is to create an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere that reflects Bilal's themes, even if his futuristic vision may seem derivative, coming after such sci-fi films as Metropolis, Zardoz, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element and countless others.
In 2095 New York is a dystopian metropolis teeming with aliens, mutants, serial killers, ruthless politicos and slumming deities. The virile, falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus, who dwells with his peers in a flying pyramid - which has mysteriously appeared over the New York skyline - has been stripped of his immortality for acts of rebellion.
He is given seven days to finish his business among mortals before they pull the plug on him. His goal - in echoes of the Greek god Zeus, who disguised himself as Amphitryon, in order to have sex with Alcmene - to find a mortal woman whom he can impregnate in order to ensure his immortality in another form.
He sets his sights on an attractive, blue-haired humanoid woman (Hardy) who has been saved from the city's all-powerful eugenics Big Brothers by a dissident doctor (Rampling). Looking for a host body in which to perform his seduction, Horus adopts the form of a fugitive, Nikopol (Kretschmann), a one-time resistance fighter sentenced to 30 years in a deep-freeze penitentiary. While Horus-cum-Nikopol makes love to Hardy in a hotel room, a corrupt, ruthless senator unleashes his shark-headed minions to find and destroy him.
The film has a handful of stand-out set-pieces, including the opening intro to the flying pyramid and its immortal denizens and Horus's descent into the city and Nikopol's accidental escape from a aerial penitentiary when his cryogenic pod breaks lose and lands on a New York bridge.
There are also some welcome humorous touches, too, such as a scene of Horus's fellow gods whiling away the time by playing Monopoly.
If the film has an Achilles' heel it is the script, culled and reshaped from a couple of Bilal's cartoon albums by Bilal and Serge Lehman. It is strewn with subsidiary characters and details that don't always merge into the main narrative and thus prove distracting. Acting is competent, with Rampling the best of the bunch.
Prod companies: Telema, Ciby 2000, RF2K Productions, TF1 Films Production, Force Majeure Productions, Medusa Films
Fr dist: UFD
Int' l sales: TF1
Prod: Charles Gassot
Scr: Enki Bilal, Serge Lehman
Cine: Pascal Gennesseaux
Ed: Veronique Parnet
Prod des: Jean-Pierre Fouillet
Special effects: Duran Studios
Costumes: Mimi Lempicka
Music: Goran Vejvoda
Main cast: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling