While it definitely offers a mind-blowing visual experience, Judge Bill Gibron is not so sure about this excellent French animation import's "cutting edge" narrative.
Paris 2054. Live forever or die trying
What would you get if film noir and science fiction had a pair of twins, let's call them Sin City and Blade Runner, and somewhere along the line these two precocious genre deconstructors ran off to France and had a bastard inbred child? One suspects that the cinematic freak would look a heck of a lot like Renaissance. Hoping to take the art of animation to whole new technologically savvy heights, but allowing its overcomplicated storyline to frequently get in the way, what director Christian Volckman creates here is quite amazing. At times, the film can literally be seen as art in motion. Unfortunately, the speculative plot is so reminiscent of previous future-shock private eye classics that we feel a sense of prescient déjà vu.
Facts of the Case
It's 2054 and the planet has been devastated by some manner of war. Paris is a postmodern paradise that maintains its old-world charms while forwarding some new-world ideas. Primary among them are the anti-aging offerings of a company called Avalon. With its large animated billboards covering the landscape, the corporate giant promises youth, vitality, and health. When one of its chief researchers is kidnapped, the French police, led by maverick detective Karas, try to uncover the motivation behind the crime. The scientist's sister, Bislane, believes it has something to do with an old book her sibling was trying to secure. It contained the findings of a former colleague—a Dr. Jonas Muller—and has some link to the rare childhood disease progeria. All paths naturally seem to intersect at Avalon, where a ruthless CEO is out to keep a lid on the case. As Karas uncovers clues leading to the missing medico's whereabouts, he becomes tangled in a web of backstabbing deceptions and illuminating discoveries. One spells disaster. The other could mean a Renaissance for the whole human race.
Like a large glass of vodka laced with pixie sticks, the visually arresting French fable Renaissance is an intoxicating sugar-spun addiction. It shows so much invention and originality in its optical spectacle that it threatens to melt your synaptic connections outright. Using a monochrome pallet that avoids anything remotely associated with or resembling the color gray, and a combination of hand-drawn elements, motion capture performances, and CGI structuring, Renaissance has a style so captivating that we wonder why no one has thought of it before. In a realm where experimentation is ever-present and ongoing (look at the work Robert Zemeckis has been doing as of late), the look and the design of Renaissance is remarkable. While it may steal a few of its moves from Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (Sin City is a benchmark for this kind of conceit), it tweaks the type just enough to stand alone. If you're basing a film's success merely on its masterful use of medium, Christian Volckman and his crew deserve a few gigabites of praise.
But this doesn't mean that Renaissance becomes some manner of instant classic. From the artistic approach, the movie is more or less flawless. You've literally never seen anything like it before. From the narrative perspective, however, this film is as old-fashioned and formulaic as a private dick's well-worn fedora. Like its cinematic soulmate Blade Runner, Renaissance is standard noir encased in speculative fiction, a whodunit made slightly more intriguing by the introduction of outsized perspective. Where Ridley Scott's modern-day masterpiece wins is in the creation of characters. Deckard may be a standard amoral lawman, but his opponents—the brilliantly conceived and essayed replicants—were the most unlikely and unusual villains the genre had ever seen. Renaissance reinvents nothing, however. All the routine elements are here—the cop with a past, the girl with a secret, a missing mark that's really nothing more than a gateway MacGuffin, an evil enterprise hiding its true intentions from the rest of the world, the last-act denouement that clarifies little as it confuses everything. As a matter of fact, Renaissance plays so closely to this '40s filmmaking rulebook that you find yourself wondering out loud: "All right, when is our hero accused of the crimes?" and "How much longer before the femme fatale turns traitor?" Of course, the answers arrive onscreen in all their black-and-white beauty.
In addition, the voice work—especially in the original French version—is uninspired and derivative in its lack of effectiveness. Our hero, Karas, is so gruff and gritty that you can practically smell the various personal problems—and brown liquor—on his breath. Bislane is more buoyant than troubled, like a party girl given a part too big to easily essay. Unlike the '50s and '60s version of the crime thriller that the evolving European New Wave used to deconstruct the language of film, Renaissance is hopelessly married to—and therefore marred by—Hollywood thriller archetypes. It worked for Sin City because creator Frank Miller twisted the symbols and storylines into pseudo-satire, using the recognizability of type and the celebration of symbols as a means of making a much deeper point. Here, characters remain cogs, locked into a certain cinematic status and never allowed to leave. Some of this is fixed in the English dub where Daniel Craig becomes far more hardboiled and heavy while Ian Holm elevates Dr. Jonas Muller into something almost sympathetic. But the overly busy script—chalked up to four individuals (Alexandre de La Patellière, Mathieu Delaporte, Jean-Bernard Pouy, and Patrick Raynal)—is having too much fun playing "spot the reference"' to care about fully realized characters. It definitely shows.
And then there's the matter of the mise-en-scene. By choosing a directorial design that mimic comics and deep-shadowed darkness, some scenes come across as cinematically inert. This is not a contradiction of the previous statements made about Renaissance's originality. No, from opening to ending, this is a stunning visual feast. But great-looking canvases don't always add up to compelling motion picture drive. For example, there's a chase scene through the thoroughly modern street system of New Paris. As the sleek vehicles swerve and collide, the images are striking. But they lack a kind of heft, a gearhead gravitas to make the action sequence really successful. Similarly, when Bislane breaks into the records department of Avalon to try and find some information on her sister's research, the art design is delicious. The place looks like a sterile warehouse from hell. But then a supposed suspense sequence breaks out, bad guys looking to silence our spy. The minute the lights go out and the night vision viewpoint is employed, the cat-and-mouse game more or less fizzles. From glass floors that allow us to see the city in all of its juxtaposed perspectives (old vs. new) and the scientifically impossible spaces (Avalon head Paul Dellenbach's suspended office), aesthetics sometimes actually draw us out of Renaissance's brave new reality.
Most time, however, the surreal look works wonders. When Karas visits the mobster with whom he shares a childhood connection, the swimming pool setting is haunting and hypnotic. So is a standoff between our hero and Muller along the ledge of one of Paris's many suspended walkways. Several establishing shots give us a metropolis meshed with modernization run amok, and the cloaking device used by the bad guys has a nice, organic feel. Yet it's beauty and imagination in service of a standard story. Even the subtext inherent in the storyline (we are dealing with people pursuing the cure to aging, after all) is more or less ignored. We get a sanctimonious speech near the end, but that's all. Some accused Sin City of being the proverbial sow's ear dressed up in a glamorous designer silk purse. They argued for its look and against its otherwise ordinary motion picture particulars. Interestingly enough, the same debate can be had over Renaissance. It's a brilliant movie visually. It sets a new standard for how the computer and the creator interact. But unless you find something new or novel in the plotline, what you're witnessing is style in service of standard substance—and frankly, a film that looks like this should be better than that.
Heavily promoted prior to its limited theatrical run, Miramax gives the DVD version of Renaissance a decent digital package. The added content is limited to a single featurette (the excellent behind the scene documentary The Making of Renaissance), but the other technical specs are absolutely terrific. Since it relies on only two colors to create its anime-like design, the transfer here needs to be perfectly balanced and expertly controlled. Thankfully, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is exceptional. The monochrome is sharp while the contrasts remain clear and cutting. On the sound side, we are treated to two equally interesting mixes. The first is in French with easy to read subtitles. The second is in English with excellent voice acting all around. Both are offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround that makes good use of the back speakers (for ambient elements) and directional/spatial attributes. The included extra is interesting since it is very hands on, showing the production process from sketches to sessions with the motion capture apparatus. The amount of effort that went into this film is readily apparent and easily translates into every frame of this film.
In the end, it doesn't really matter that Renaissance is the illegitimate brat of some far more compelling movies. No one will care that the characters aren't convincing or that the mystery is a muddle of dozens of definitive genre takes. Like a spectacular sunset that may have derived from the most mundane of days, this arresting effort proves that there is substantial life in the long form computer generated movie after all. While family films continue to cannibalize the art form, reducing the entire cinematic category to anthropomorphized animals cutting the cheese, efforts like this argue for its viability as something special. It will be interesting to see where director Volkman goes from here. Renaissance shows the kind of promise that provokes unlimited aesthetic speculation. If animation—any kind of animation—is to grow and prosper beyond the Shreks and the Ice Ages, the medium needs more amazing works like this. Sure, the plot is rather pedestrian, but when it comes wrapped up in this kind of motion-picture package, its flaws are easily—and happily—forgotten.
Not guilty. A wonderful piece of eye candy that fills you up before the perfunctory plot holes make you hungry for something more.
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• "The Making of Renaissance" Featurette
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