Immortel (AKA Immortal) (2004)
Director: Enki Bilal
Writer: Enki Bilal & Serge Lehman
Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling
Welcome and Happy New Year from the 13th installment of Shot for Shot. I’ll be flying solo this week, bringing you a look back at 2004’s Immortel (ad vitam) a graphic novel adaptation written and directed by the comic’s creator, Enki Bilal. In a way, Immortel is an antecedent to both Avatar and The Spirit – but we’ll talk about that more in a bit.
The film stars French actress Linda Hardy as Jill – an amnesiac in the New York 2095 whose genetically-unique body only appears to be three months old. She’s found by geneticist Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling) who gives the blue-skinned woman a place to stay in exchange for the opportunity to study her. Then there’s cryogenically frozen convict Nikopol (Kretschmann) who accidentally gets a year off his sentence (and loses his leg) due to a mechanical malfunction – he meets and ends up on the run with Jill. And did I mention the floating pyramids, Egyptian gods, and the restricted zone in Central Park?
Immortel is an ambitious, if unfortunately busy film adapted from writer/director Enki Bilal’s La foire aux immortels (The Carnival of the Immortals) which came during the first wave of green screen movies in the middle of the decade (along with Sky Captain and the World of Tommorrow and Casshern). Mixing live action actors with CG backgrounds, humans, and creatures, the final product is visually interesting but off somehow. Think of a more earnest and frankly sexual The Fifth Element and you have a sense of the final product.
According to Wikipedia, Bilal is a jack-of-all-trades in the comics world as well, having been scripting and illustrating his own work since the mid-70’s at the age of 14. La foire aux immortels is the first in the award-winning Nikopol trilogy of books created by Bilal, and it’s likely that had the big-screen adaptation found a wider audience we would have seen the second and perhaps the third stories in the sequence adapted.
However, the film is troubled from the start given the wooden performance by Hardy. She appears overwhelmed here, unsure of what to do with a character unsure of their identity or even species. It’s not for lack of commitment to the role – the actress is unafraid to show some skin or paint it blue for effect. The problem is that as Jill, Hardy can’t find the right level of tone for the role. What made Milla Jovavich the breakout character in Besson’s 1997 film was Leeloo’s manic assuredness mixed with playful naiveté. By contrast, Hardy comes off as wooden, confusing ultra-human to inhuman.
The actress also seems like an odd match for genre vet Kretschmann (Wanted, Valkyrie, King Kong (2005)), who, as Nikopol seems better calibrated for his role. As the co-lead, Kretschmann gives his character a bit of gritty dignity – we never forget that he’s a convict, or that he’s in over his head when killers and gods start dropping into the story all around him. The mismatch with Hardy stems from a lack of sexual chemistry in spite of the time the two characters spend frolicking.
The rest of the film is mostly filled with digital actors which work to varying effect. By making many of the characters in this world genetically modified, Bilal is to some extent, able to get past the uncanny valley with the rationale that something is off with the mass of humanity in the future. But given the mid-budget nature of the film, no one would describe any of the characters as photorealistic.
The blue-grey color scheme of the world (mirrored on Jill’s skin) gives the filmmaker and excuse to fill the CG environment with gleaming, cold surfaces. It’s a cold, uninviting future, New York 2095. It’s also a very vertical future, with buildings ascending well into the sky as overcrowding puts a premium on skyscraper space. Evoking a cramped, ugly future which remains visually interesting is one area where the film succeeds.
As an antecedent to Avatar and Frank Miller’s (rightly) maligned The Spirit it’s an early case where the technology is at the forefront of the experience. For all the uniqueness of the story and the source material, Immortel never lets the viewer forget that they’re watching new technology. (I won’t use this as a platform to argue for or against the merits of Avatar but I believe its well-earned success is highly contingent on its experience and less about the quality of the actual movie).
It’s worth seeking out if you have the chance – if only for the unique weirdness. Writer-director Bilal creates an odd world and populates it with odd things (instead of simply trying to make the mundane photorealistic).
You can find the trailer for the movie below: