I felt bad about missing the B/W animated French sci-fi neo-noir “Renaissance” (2006) in theaters last year, but not too bad considering that Miramax unceremoniously vomited the innovative film into a two theater opening weekend and let four weeks go by before chucking the film off the edge of the planet. Thank god for DVDs, because the brutal treatment is utterly undeserved. “Renaissance” ranks as one of my belated picks for best 2006 genre films and stands up well (although under) the year’s other notable science fiction outings (“Children of Men,” “The Fountain” and “The Prestige”) though for very different reasons.
The adjectives that I mentioned in the first sentence above go a long way in describing what makes it so interesting; particularly in how seamlessly and intriguingly multiple genres and modes of presentation are blended. You can derive many of its influences by manipulating these elements like so:
Sci-fi + Neo Noir = “Blade Runner”
Sci-fi + Neo Noir + Animated = “Ghost in the Shell”
Sci-fi + B/W = “Metropolis”
Neo Noir + B/W = “Sin City”
France + Neo Noir = Jean-Pierre Melville
France + Animated = “The Triplets of Belleville”(The last one is a stretch as an influence, but the rhyme was irresistible.)
The film has a good plot at its core although it takes about half an hour before the disparate threads start to weave into a whole more interesting than its individual parts. The story follows Karas, a former hoodlum who has grown into a hard-bitten cop of the typical renegade variety. He sports a dark wardrobe, an ice-cool cyberpunk attitude and a pistol, needing little more to navigate the humming metropolis of near-future Paris.
Recent tradition for action movies has been to start the show with the protagonist wrapping up an unrelated case. It provides a chance to prime the audience’s adrenaline pumps and establish the character’s abilities. “Renaissance” begins with Karas going kill-crazy on a child-hostage situation set inside a warehouse packed with casts of Rodin’s The Thinker. Consider yourself warned: this is action fare for the thinking man and the artist in you.
While the plot has some creative bends and a finale that overcomes the residual clichés, it’s hampered by the poor writing. Except to move the plot along, nothing much gets said that qualifies as inspirational. Volckman and his writers could have learned more from Melville’s near-silent characters, but they seem to borrow more from the videogame cut-scene mold of generic one-liners and functional expositions. Not surprisingly, the studio also plans to make games. On the plus side, the film does benefit from positive influences like Metal Gear Solid and Max Payne.
All such faults are redeemed by the visuals, easily repaying the price of a rental for anyone seriously interested in animation and CG. Volckman (and friends) had the innovative idea to shoot a black and white film without grays, giving the film a visual Manichaeism in complete opposition to its morally ambiguous tale. While one might suppose that it would be difficult to tell what is going on without a gradient, the filmmakers do an excellent job maintaining clarity when needed.
Depth perception is provided by careful layering of mise-en-scene, low-key single-source lighting that create a distinct silhouette and plenty of movement. When the blacks and whites of separate object overlap it always feels like it was artistically chosen, not an accident. Time and attention has also gone into maintaining sharp-edged consistency to prevent the way patches can jump back-and-forth between black and white when the original gray is right in between (you can see this ugly effect by watching videos on a computer with the contrast set to 100%).
The images above testify to the artistic vision, which creates a crisp futuristic shell that still maintains a moody noir nougat inside. “Renaissance” consciously bucks the oft-used New York and Tokyo landscapes for something with a more elegant, graphic-art feel and a definite French atmosphere. Here are some more exteriors:
Coupled to the animation technique is some of the best motion capture work I’ve seen. Rarely do the characters move unnaturally, although there is still a tendency to gesture too dramatically. Unfortunately, the convincing movement is often diluted by the stilted dialogue and loose character development
This lack of polish is certain to provoke shouts of “style over substance,” but in truth the film has both depth and scope for those who dive into the chaos and confusion of the early third. It does take commitment and an open mind. Critics hated the film with uncanny fervor (44% Rotten Tomato, 57/100 on Metacritic), but the majority of the wrath preys on the poor writing while dismissing the visuals outright. Few of the nay-sayers show a willingness to actually follow the story or, god forbid, reflect upon it.
If you are a fan of noir, action sci-fi or animation, I highly suggest you see this film. In fact, buy it. That way maybe the studio can afford to do follow-up. The film merits multiple viewing not just to catch the artistic touches and relive the high-octane action sequences, but to notice the clever references and foreshadowing. On that note, I finish with the type of art comparison I usually reserve for gialli.