We all have our bad memories.
–Karas (Daniel Craig)
“Do you really never talk or is this all just for show?” When his boss is frustrated by Detective Karas’ silence, he looks at her for a moment, long and hard. He turns from his questioner and walks away, up a stairway and into the camera, his body blackening and filling the frame as he draws nearer.
Karas actually does talk, quite a bit in fact. Voiced in the U.S. release of Christian Volckman’s movie by Daniel Craig, he is notably reluctant to provide his superiors with details or haggle over legal niceties. He’s just saved a young boy by shooting all three of his kidnappers dead. Though Karas told little Theo to close his eyes, this garishly violent scene in Renaissance cuts so fast and often that you never know what the boy saw. Karas understands the effects of childhood trauma: he’s been living with it since he was a kid, and he and his best friend Nusrat Farfella (voiced as an adult by Kevork Malikyan) were running from a man with a gun. The image comes to Karas repeatedly, haunting him, reminding him of what it means to be afraid. And so he does his best to ease the fear and pain of others.
So far, so noir. Christian Volckman’s movie adjusts the genre slightly, and in a most familiar way, namely, science fiction, recalling Philip K. Dick-based movies, most obviously, Blade Runner. Its animation style is inspired by Lang’s Metropolis and graphic novels (most patently, Frank Miller’s work, especially as jazzed by Robert Rodriguez).
But, much as Renaissance works its extratextual allusions, it is also its own thing. Slow-moving and probably too attentive to its own less than innovative plot, its most brilliant impact is visual. A sharply black and white rendering of motion-captured performances (now working with its second set of voices, the first cast being French), it features looming, futuristic architecture (set in Paris 2054, designed by Alfred Frazzani), where buildings and faces are equally and repeatedly cut in half by severe shadows. Relationships evolve in visual form: reflections in windows suggest emotional connections (the voice performances adapting a noiry flatness) and images repeatedly transform, space unsteady and time reduced to “night” and “day.”
At the center of Karas’ investigation is a kidnap victim trapped in a holographic cell. As she wakes from an induced unconsciousness, the space around her transforms, trees sprouting and autumnal leaves falling gently around her, menacing in their fallacy. Frightened, she begins running through a space that doesn’t exist. Illusion is frequently the threat in noir (the dark alley hides a killer, the femme is fatale), but the SF angle tweaks the possibilities.
In Renaissance‘s future noir, surfaces that deceive are multiply layered: transparent walkways and streets allow for chases on two levels at once, the detective pursues one culprit, knowing another oversees the operation. And if Karas isn’t quite the hero he appears to be, neither is the girl in the cell quite the victim.
Her name is Ilona Tasuiev (Romola Garai), and she’s a genetic researcher for a company named Avalon, lately looking into a DNA project that either started or stopped dead in 2006. This project involved an effort to stop rapid aging (Blade Runner again), with implications for immortality. Ilona’s employer, a short, shock-banged villainish sort named Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce), knows something about her disappearance but he’s not talking and he’s also wealthy enough so he doesn’t have to. And so Karas is left to tease information from a couple of other reluctant sources, Ilona’s sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack) and mentor Jonas Muller (Ian Holm).
Karas understands the “show” of detecting, his own deception, which makes him both the perfect guy for this case and the absolutely worst guy. As in other versions of this story, a tragic truth emerges, along with surprising murders and expected liaisons (say, the romance between Karas and Brislane). Karas’ investigation leads him into ever darker and deeper corporate corruptions, the identity theft and genetic manipulations that allow Avalon to offer “a better world,” where consumers can purchase beauty and longevity.
Understanding that offer to be false, Karas understands there’s more at risk in this case than a single kidnap victim. And so he sets to his task with a particular intensity, his investment indicated, even enhanced, in the animation’s extraordinary detail, with multiple dimensions indicated by pervasive rain that soaks exteriors and courses along windows, eyes that reflect and absorb light, and smoke that makes space hard to read, murky and swirling.
Just as Karas sees the world in fine gradations, his own complexities are made most acute in his friendship with the gangster Farfella. On the surface, they seem opposites: Karas taut, angry, and employed by the government, while Farfella is large, bald, and sensual, his own man within a system of perpetual negotiation. When Karas goes to visit Farfella in search of information (because Farfella knows everything that happens in his city, and better, has surveillance tape of it), he is standing in what seems an endless shallow pool, surrounded by naked girls caressing his bulk, emblems of his power in a universe where moral options are framed by money and dread. Yet he and Karas trust one another, maintain a sense of mutual loyalty.
Their friendship allows a plot point, but more than that, it incarnates the ways business gets done. As much as Karas lives by his own reputation for dedication and focus, he comprehends that such conventionally admirable qualities are not enough. He doesn’t judge Farfella, but uses and appreciates him, finds strange solace in his difference as well as their shared bad memories.
As kids, he says, they had no choice but to take up with gangs. Now, their affiliations — coppish and criminal — have only changed on the surface. Refracted and jagged like the angles of the city they inhabit, they’re less friends than they are pieces of a puzzle, interlocked. Unknown except to one another, they make their own illusory sense.