This is a somewhat obscuro French sci-fi, directed and co-written by Enki Bilal, the ace Franco/Yugo comics auteur known for his work in Metal Hurlant, and his amazing Nikopol Trilogy (the other writer is Pierre Christin, a collaborator on early titles such as The Black Order Brigade and The Hunting Party). As well as the comics, Bilal had gained some experience prior to this debut- he was drafted in to provide monster designs for Michael Mann’s The Keep (though I don’t think he is to blame for the eventual crappy rubber creature in the final film) and he worked in some sort of production design capacity on an Alain Resnais film. I wish that I could go into some sort of description of the genesis of Bunker Palace, but there is either zero information about the film online, or plenty of information online but all of it in languages foreign to me. The IMDB does not carry even one single external review, for heaven’s sake, and the messageboards are pretty much empty. The only review in English I could find was in my Time Out Film Guide, suggesting that there must have been some kind of English release for the film, even if it perhaps only played in London. Now, however, the only way of seeing the movie with English subtitles was through certain underhanded methods. So, this review will have to be entirely off my own back. Nightmare.
The film is set in a country seemingly torn apart by civil war, perhaps some kind of insurrection against what may be a dictatorship (very little of this is explained). Divisions in the spoken languages of the country are mentioned at several points, and the mise en scene is somewhere beyond the Iron Curtain, colliding with elements of the Balkans (actually filmed, I believe, in Belgrade). We are shown several members of the county’s elite (or perhaps they are members of the cabinet- again, I wasn’t very sure), fleeing to a secret underground bunker, maintained and styled as a hotel (hence the title: though it wasn’t much of a palace, to be honest) staffed exclusively by (incredibly dysfunctional) robot servants. However, amongst them are spies and imposters. One of these is Clara, played by Carole Bouquet (with dyed orange hair and a minimum of make-up, she looks far more beautiful here, to my eyes, than she did as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only), a member of the dissidents who ends up inside only after her original spy is killed. Clearly not a member of the group, she is looked upon with hostility and suspicion by them (interesting cast amongst them, including Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud), and subjected to several chat-up routines (with an interrogational edge) by the nominal leader of the group, Jean-Louis Trintignant, a mysterious (well, everyone here is fairly mysterious) industrialist with unclear motives. He is not, crucially, the country’s leader, the arrival of whom everyone awaits while debating his motives.
Considering the film is a sci-fi film made in the 1980s, it betrays almost nothing of having been made in that decade, except perhaps for the Cold War inspiration of the setting and Maria Schneider’s mullet. Visually, as is always expected from comic book artists dabbling in film, it is spectacular, yet somehow sombre and muted in terms of the colour palette. What astonishes me is how faithfully Bilal is able to replicate his art style in the pre-digital era (the look of characters is paramount to this: Bouquet is clearly remodelled to be one of his drawings; the other tell is a fat robot nurse wearing a pale green uniform, chalk white face and very red lips), and in addition to that, there are next to no special effects in the film, no blue screen, few fancy gadgets. In the first half it seems like they had a whole railway line to play with, Soviet type trains providing the entry to the bunker.
The film is surprisingly talky, coming from comic book authors (can anyone name another comics artist turned director? I can only think of Frank Miller), but never less than intriguing. Coming into it cold helps with the plot twists, of which there are a couple of crucial ones. Certainly worth tracking, through fair means or foul.
I will also, at some point, review Bilal’s Tykho Moon here, obtained through similar means.