Once upon a time, Marc Caro directed imaginative fantasies with dark centers with creative partner Jean-Pierre Jeunet. After years of commercials, music videos, short films and two deliciously weird and perversely funny feature films, Jeunet left for a hugely successful solo career turning out visually bright, excessively cute and terribly sentimental romantic hits. Former comic book artist Caro has pitched in with some design work (including Jeunet’s solo debut Alien: Resurrection and reportedly some uncredited contributions on others) but otherwise has been MIA since. Dante 01 is his first feature since the 1995 City of Lost Children and his first feature ever as a solo director. Based on the evidence of this heavy-handed pseudo science fiction thriller, I’d say he needs another creative partnership.
Set on an isolated space station prison/high security mental facility filled circling a red hellish planet (called Dante, of course), it’s more parable than thriller. Lambert Wilson stars as a mysterious, silent patient who arrives with a new doctor, Elisa (Linh Dan Pham). He’s stranger in a strange land, unable to speak, perpetually dazed, stumbling around like a child in a man’s body and a shaved head, like all of the prisoners. What he’s doing on the station is only vaguely explained (not even the doctors know his identity), but that’s a minor mystery compared to the premise itself: a fully-functioning (if somewhat outdated and neglected) space station, two years from the nearest civilization by shuttle, kept running at what must be an enormous expense just to observe a handful of criminals and patients that have “volunteered” for behavioral experiments conducted by a shady corporation called Neurinos. The skeleton crew is as big as the captive population. Elisa arrives with instruction from corporate headquarters to conduct highly unethical and violently invasive experiments on the prisoners, injecting them with experiment nanotechnology to neutralize their aggression centers and, hopefully, emerge with an “efficient and commercial” new technology. The corporation is willing to risk 100% losses, according to her mandate, but even that conspiratorial overtone is hardly explanation for such resources to be squandered on something that could be easily stuck in some secret Earthbound laboratory.
But then Dante 01 isn’t science fiction, it’s just allegory with technology. The symbols are all on the surface, right down the names; Wilson’s mystery man is called Saint George (after a tattoo on his shoulder), long-time prisoners have names like Lazarus (who rose from the dead in the Bible) and Moloch (a god that demanded sacrifices, from Judaism), the station commander is Charon (who ferried the dead to the underworld in Greek mythology) and the compassionate doctor who tries to protect the prisoners from the experiments is Persephone (the goddess of the underworld). They may be physically above the fiery red, inhospitable planet, but the as the chapter titles spell out on screen, we’re descending, like the planet’s namesake Dante, down through the circles of hell. And then, of course, there’s Wilson’s Christ/Angel figure, the holy innocent who heals injuries and cures the ill (including those infected with the experimental nanotechnology), a tortured other who arrives and saves others while he himself suffers the torments of their pain and sin. His miracles transform some of the patients into apostles and threatens the power that Cesar (Jeunet and Caro regular Dominique Pinon) has amassed over his little domain. Thus he’s marked for death.
Caro, who was the designer in the partnership with Jeunet, at least hews to the grunge noir sci-fi look of industrial space station design. This is not the gleaming white of Kubrick’s 2001 but the dark, dinghy gray of Alien (lit by what is now fashionable sci-fi hues of computer green and florescent blue) and the confining, claustrophobic submarine-like living spaces of Blade Runner. Even that is cheated for dramatic effect: the emergency override panel, a failsafe that needs to be accessible in case of emergency, is under four meters of water. Boiling water. Who designed this ship, the guy from the Saw films?
While Caro was the visual designer of the creative partnership with Jeunet, based on the evidence of their solo work, I’d say that Jeunet was the stylist and the storyteller. But more importantly, Caro is grim and dark to Jeunet’s whimsy and sentimentalism. Together they hit quite a balance. Apart, Caro is left without the tools to fill his sets and designs with living characters and turn his ideas into a story. All he’s got to offer is clumsy symbolism and tired social commentary, dressed up with technology and grungy sets.
Dante 01 played numerous festivals around the world and received a theatrical run in 2008 in France, but arrives straight to DVD in the US. The Lionsgate DVD features the original French soundtrack with optional English dub track and English subtitles. The accompanying 31-minute “The Making of Dante 01” is also in French with subtitles.