Renaissance (France/Luxembourg/United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Renaissance is the latest in a growing range of screen titles with a graphic novel sensibility. Coming in the wake of Sin City, Renaissance treads through similar territory, but with a striking difference: director Christian Volckman uses rotoscoped animation to render the characters, giving the film a more effective "comic book" feel than Roberto Rodriguez achieved. Filmed in stark black-and-white with a limited number of grays (and two sequences featuring colors), Renaissance often appears like a lithograph come to life. The film's look is impressive; it's the most successful rotoscoping effort to date (far surpassing Richard Linklater's duo of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), and causes every frame to drip atmosphere.

The story transpires in 2054 Paris, where no one is immune from the prying eyes of high-tech surveillance. The neo-fascist government ensures that no action goes unseen and no conversation goes unheard. Furturistic skyscrapers have transformed Paris' cityscape, but the Eiffel Tower is still the most recognizable landmark. Exerting more power over the city than its elected leaders is cosmetics company Avalon, whose chief officer, Paul Dellenbach (voice of Jonathan Pryce), sits in a glass office overlooking his domain. When one of Avalon's most promising researchers, Ilona (Romola Garai), is kidnapped, police captain Karas (Daniel Craig), is called in to investigate. Karas' specialty is rescue, and he usually gets the job done, albeit in an unconventional and reckless fashion. His search leads him first to Ilona's immediate boss, Doctor Jonas Muller (Ian Holm), a scientist with something to hide; then to Illona's beautiful older sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack), who becomes romantically involved with Karas; then to an underworld gangster, Farfella (Kevork Mialikyan), who has long-standing ties to the policeman. With each new clue, Karas pieces together a puzzle that leads in a direction where he does not want to travel.

The character of Karas is the most interesting individual in Renaissance, not because he's especially complex or multi-dimensional, but because of what he represents. Facially, he bears a resemblance to Sean Connery circa 1962 and he is voiced by Daniel Craig. The connections to 007 don't end there - Karas has the same philosophy of simultaneously courting danger and women, and walking into dangerous situations from which only the most egotistical marksman would expect to emerge alive. One could look at Renaissance as an answer to the question of what would happen if James Bond was catapulted 50 years into the future.

In a departure from previous rotoscoped efforts, the bodies used to form the basis of the animation are not those of the actors providing the voices. The approach by which characters speak in Renaissance is more like what we would expect in traditional animation. There aren't any standout performances, although there are some familiar voices. In addition to Craig, we hear words spoken by Ian Holm, Jonathan Pryce, and Catharine McCormack. Interestingly, despite the difference in appearance between the voice actors and their characters, there's no sense of a disconnect.

Had Renaissance been made in color and as a live action spectacle, it would be the kind of big-budget endeavor that could invigorate a summer movie season. However, because it's French (although in English), animated, and black-and-white, it becomes more of a niche treat than a mainstream effort. Like Luc Besson, Volckman doesn't shy away from pop and Hollywood influences. While many of today's adult animated motion pictures are inspired by Japanese anime, Renaissance draws more from American film noir and American graphic novels (think Frank Miller). Volckman synthesizes rather than copies, and this results in a unique look and feel that is almost hypnotic. However, although style may be what draws us in, the compelling nature of the plot and our interest in the characters and their situations keeps us involved until the final credits roll. It might be hyperbole to call Renaissance unique, but it is very different from most films that open in theaters, and it's worth going a few extra miles to seek out, especially if this is a genre that holds appeal.

Renaissance (France/Luxembourg/United Kingdom, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1