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Renaissance (2006)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

RENAISSANCE (2006)

Voices: Daniel Craig, Romola Garai, Ian Holm, Jonathan Pryce, Catherine McCormack

Written By: Alexandre de La Patelliere, Matthieu Delaporte, Jean-Bernard Pouy, Patrick Raynal

Directed By: Christian Volckman

The Short Version

Whatever else it is, Renaissance is visually stunning.

Motion captured performances are animated in absolute monochrome.

The story is shamelessly derivative sci fi noir, but this movie isn’t about the story.

In the truest sense of the phrase, Renaissance is, foremost, an Art Film.

If you’re looking for something different, Renaissance is worth the time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BRIE DE MEAUX.

Distinctly French, but cosmopolitan sophisticate all the same.


Pairs Well With...

GREY GOOSE VODKA.

Clean.  Clear.  Simply sophisticated.  That about covers it, I think.

“First we find her, and then we sleep.”


Once upon a time, architect Louis Sullivan declared that “form ever follows function.” 

The creative team behind Renaissance doesn’t buy that.

Renaissance is, foremost, a work of visual art: an Art Film in the truest sense of the term.  For the creative team behind it, form was the first item to be considered.  In 1999, they became intrigued by the idea of utilizing motion capture technology to translate live action performances into an animated film with a stark monochrome palette, and developed the project that would become Renaissance – not to mention the entire studio that made it – based on that single parameter.  Being Parisians, they decided that the story would be set in Paris, and from there decided that the look and feel of the visuals they wanted to build with would work best in a not-too-far future neo-noir setting which they themselves thought of as Blade Runner meets James Ellroy.  They then combed through the genre catalogue and cobbled something together from common elements.  And so, if the function of a movie is to tell a story – which most would agree it is – then in the case of Renaissance, function not only followed form, but it came in almost dead last.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as other things are done right to take up the slack.  Renaissance goes for broke on its look, and that alone is enough.

There really is nothing else quite like it out there.  With just two exceedingly brief exceptions, the color palette for Renaissance is stark monochrome: black and white with absolutely no shades of grey.  (Grey is only used for a few seconds to indicate a scene happening underwater, and color only appears when a character with a child’s mind draws pictures.)  This look will occasionally occur in a graphic novel, but on the screen?  Nowhere else.  Not like this.  There really is no better word for it than “striking,” and no proper way to experience it outside of high definition.  (The black/white/nothing-in-between contrast is too harsh for anything else to handle; I’ve seen screen caps from a bootleg standard definition DVD, and they do not do the intended picture justice.) 

But what one sees in that high definition is so much more than animation with a high contrast palette.  The use of motion capture to bring life to the characters and the way they interact with the world really does take Renaissance to the next level.  It brings a naturalistic quality to the characters – and to their ability to convey a story – that even the best animators have a hard time capturing.  Along with naturalizing movement, this technique of “filming before filming” with the actors working on minimalistic sets also allows those actors to behave as though they’re working on a theatrical stage rather than on a movie set, which lends an additional air of intimacy to the proceedings and which the director and the animators capture very, very well.  (There was, in fact, a team of animators who studied the eyes of the actors during each scene so that even those hints of expression could be translated.)  It’s telling that one of the actors noted in an interview that the director would usually choose which take would be worked from based of facial expressions above all else.  Even within the confines of the most inhuman of color palettes, the team here wants to convey a very human presence.

What’s especially interesting in that regard is that the characters being animated generally resemble neither the actors who did the physical modeling and initial portrayals nor the English speaking actors later brought in to do the vocals.  (Though the film is French and the physical actors read in French, it was always intended to be released as a primarily English language film for the sake of a mass audience.  I will say that having watched scenes in both languages, the harsher edges of English work better here anyway.)  It matters not; the characters as rendered fit the settings they’re placed in, and that is what counts.  They live in a world of full light and full shadow, and are presented accordingly.  The character of Bislane is particularly amazing, especially when she moves.

As for that Parisian setting that came even before the characters did, it is a beautiful and fascinating rendering, combining the familiar with the newly imagined; the stunningly futuristic with the Old World grandiosity of one of the world’s great cities.  Yes, there’s an occasional peek at Le Tour Eiffel, and a few more peeks at Mont St. Michel, but there are also glass sidewalks, holographic billboards, and a red light district that takes holographic advertising even further than that.  All of the city’s centuries come together in a wonderfully artistic – and reasonably plausible – vision of how Paris really might age.

If you’re wondering if there’s any visual detail at all the team here might have missed, the answer is “no” – even the cars that are seen on the city’s streets were designed by people from Citroen. 

So yes, they really did think of everything, and the unique visual style of Renaissance really is perfect.  It is, as noted, a true work of visual art.  Other films have tried, but none have gotten the page-to-screen look as perfectly as Renaissance does, and that alone is enough to make this movie worth checking out.

So why, then, does Renaissance get so many critical cold shoulders?

I believe that I already mentioned that on the filmmakers’ “things to do” list, “story” came last.

For all of its incredible visuals and amazing behind the scenes techniques and wonderful work by the actors, the fact is that the story being told by Renaissance is incredibly derivative; indeed, one can’t help but wonder if the writers played a game with themselves to see just how many classic science fiction and film noir references they could cobble together into one Frankenscript.  Original elements are few, continuity is a problem (the film is set in 2054, but some elements are geared to have it set in 2042 instead), and one thing really does not necessarily lead to another.  (On the other hand, the story does stay so tight to noir mystery formula that even though the plot’s loaded with issues, it’s still not all that difficult to guess what’s going to happen anyway.)

But does that make Renaissance a failure, or at the very least, a horribly missed opportunity?

I say “no.”

Sure, the story’s as watertight as a fishing net, but you know what?  So are a lot of noir stories, including the very best of them.  (For example, even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who committed at least one of the murders in The Big Sleep, and he wrote the book.)  The genre is tolerant that way.  No, the script isn’t watertight, but the story’s still coherent enough to stand.  One can sit back as the credits roll and say “I get what happened.”  (And that, frankly, is a hell of a lot more than any sane person can say about Akira.)

As for what that story is… the filmmakers came up with it next to last, so here you go, next to last.

In the year 2054, the Parisian skyline is dominated by advertisements for the pharmaceutical giant Avalon, which takes a particular interest in holding back the aging process.  When one of their most brilliant researchers, Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai) is abducted off the street, it’s up to hard-nosed cop Barthelemy Karas (Daniel Craig) to find her.  But of course, when big corporations with big secrets are involved, nothing is as black and white as it seems, is it?  Can anyone be trusted?  In a place like this, there are no safe bets…

Well, almost none.  By my watch, it is a safe bet that Renaissance is worth a couple hours of your time, whether you end up agreeing that the stunning visuals trump the derivative story or not.

Bottom line, Renaissance is a work of art that deserves to be experienced.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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