Cinema Signal:

From Alien to The Matrix:
Reading Science Fiction Film
. "Renaissance"

Christian Volckman's look into a bizarre future permeated and largely controlled by a corporation is heavily stylized by three tone imagery. More on that, later.

It's Paris in 2054 and the city of ancient beauty has changed. 21st century skyscrapers overlay centuries-old architectural masterpieces and the old tunnel system is being supplanted by an overgrowth of streamlined plazas. But, the update isn't limited to the cosmetics of buildings and infrastructure. Far worse is the growing threat of political domination by the ever-present company that seems to want to rule, more through mind control than political debate, Avalon. Their reach is everywhere they find a need as they search for the scientific secrets that will enhance its primary product, eternal youth and beauty.

Call it a cultural takeover through age control.

22-year old Ilona Tasuev (Romola Garai), a beautiful semi-genius about whom little is known outside the fact that she's a prodigy of the company's great geneticist Jonas Muller (Ian Holm), is as self-confident as they come. But the belief in her own invulnerability that makes her think she can walk isolated streets and alleys at night by herself proves her downfall when she's kidnapped. Spirited away to a digital world controlled by an evil genius who is wise to all her wiles of intelligence and anti-hostage psychology, she is, to all intents and purposes, disappearred.

Her sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack), whose sensuality comes off the screen, wants to find her as desperately as Avalon and its scummy CEO Paul Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce) does. Leading the search from the standpoint of law enforcement is our hero, one Barthelemy Karas (Daniel Craig), a Paris cop who has built a reputation for finding people and dealing with criminal trash with a no-nonsense approach to justice that's all his own but respected by many. We see his most recent exploit in a prologue designed to sell us on his unquestioned set of skills. He's the man for the job, even though all his avenues of interrogation lead to so many dead bodies. It becomes a clash of powers, with the decent cop frustrating and bamboozling the big brother power that's become the virtual state.

Faced with desperate, power hungry sociopaths running a board room that virtually amounts to government, with organized crime and with highly secret genetic research that may have discovered a miracle man has sought since before Adam and Eve, Karas and Bislane struggle to find the trust in one another that might allow them both to combined resources in order to find Ilona and survive the mysteries.

With a script by Mathieu Delaporte, Alexandre de La Patelliere and Jean-Bernard Pouy, director Volckman calls in the troops of animation and motion capture to render a visual style that is noirish enough to enhance the character of the story. What better way than to go for a stark, nearly uncompromisng black and white?

While I'm just guessing here, the film appears to have been photographed as live action, with the image then reduced to the two tone values of a xerox print, that is, black and white. No intermediate tones, no gradations, no what a printer would call "halftones." A third value does appear in some scenes, but only as a background screen to suggest a mirror image (see this photo of two people and their mirror images) or a window behind the actors. So, where in most scenes the shadow side of a face will blend into the black background and the lit side into the white, sometimes the full outline of a face is visible by separation against a mid tone "screen."

Here, for an example, is a publicity shot of Romola Garai and its rendering (first into greyscale then into high contrast) into the 2-tones of black and white:

But, that's not the only compromise from a pure 2-tone style. It's apparent in some instances that the eye on the shadow side of a character's face has been drawn in--driven by the need for facial expression.

The quality of the performances are unhindered by the technique, and come across as uniformly excellent. The visual approach should be of interest to anyone who has ever been in a darkroom or manipulated a digital image. As a movie device, it serves a story that seems appropriate--a futuristic other world, providing noirish obscurity to a noir sci-fi with a technique somewhere between live action and animation. But there's a novelty factor that works both for and against the effectiveness of the whole. Novelty doesn't compensate for a bit much obscurity in the storytelling.

While I fully appreciated it for its audacity and intrigue, I'd be surprised if it plays well outside the arthouses. Its audience reach is more of a kind with the rotoscoped, imaginative "A Scanner Darkly," but by sticking closer to mainstream taste in subject and action values, "Renaissance" is likely to have a better chance for a longer shelf life. Its accomplishment is entirely in the eye of the beholder. I expect it will launch a wide set of reactions into critical orbit.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

BONUS FEATURE: "The Making of Renaissance" featurette.

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Romola Garai, the missing genetics scientist.
At risk for her life.

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