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Dante 01 – film review

September 18, 2014

DANTE 01

One flew over the xenomorph’s nest.

dante-01

Directed by Marc Caro. Screenplay by Marc Caro & Pierre Bordage. Starring Lambert Wilson, Linh Dan Pham, Simona Maicanescu, Gérald Laroche and Dominique Pinon. Year of release: 2008. Running time: 82 minutes.

A mysterious faith-healing inmate, endowed with the ability to perform miracles, creates an upset upon his arrival at an isolated prison colony for the criminally     insane in orbit around an alien planet. Dubbed Saint-Georges (due to a ‘St George     and the Dragon’ tattoo he sports), this new arrival is thawed from stasis like a side     of beef and revived, and we quickly realize there is something not quite right about him. As played by Lambert Wilson (whom some may remember from his role as Merovingian in the Matrix sequels) – this character hardly ever speaks and appears   to possess the uncanny ability to see inside the human body (while being constantly haunted by images of octopus-like creatures swarming in his mind). When it becomes apparent he has the power to heal the spiritually sick and revive the dead – a series of events is set in motion which threatens the very survival of everyone on board.

Visionary helmer Marc Caro was one half of the directing team responsible for the fanciful 90s French fantasies Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children. His directing partner Jean-Pierre Jeunet has since gone on to forge a successful solo career of his own helming such films as Alien Resurrection, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Mic Macs. According to co-writer Pierre Bordage, Dante 01 began as an idea originally conceived (uncredited) by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, which Caro then reworked in collaboration with Bordage. Citing among filmmakers he most admires as being David Lynch (Lost Highway, Eraserhead), Matthew Barney (River Of Fundament) and Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) – Caro is most definitely a visual stylist on par with these directors. I would also hazard a guess that Terry Gilliam might also be an inspiration, judging from some of the otherworldly Gilliamesque steampunk aesthetics found in both Delicatessen and City Of Lost Children. Some of Caro’s steampunk sensibility did bleed into the preliminary costume design concepts for Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection – although this was the extent of Caro’s involvement in that particular debacle. In fact, the annoying lack of cohesive vision in the design of Resurrection and the general ugliness of the look of the film really does highlight Caro’s contribution to the beauty of his collaborations with Jeunet – and indeed Dante 01. After viewing Caro’s latest offering, it is blindingly clear to me now that Jeunet was floundering without his collaborator’s tasteful aesthetics and good visual sense when he made the diabolically ugly Alien Resurrection.

From the outset, Dante 01 presents itself as a kind of abstract fable (as do Caro’s earlier collaborations with Jeunet) – with a voice-over introduction intoning “Once     upon a time …” This aspect of the film is important to keep in mind when the narrative suddenly veers off into left-field territory in the final act. Some viewers     have taken this odd, almost metaphysical ending as being the result of last-minute doctoring due to budget overruns – but I sense no evidence of this. The ending – as odd as it is – is entirely consistent with what has come before, especially when one considers the (somewhat blatant) mythical aspects woven into the story. Allusions     to ‘Dante’s Inferno’ are plainly obvious (the alien planet itself – a fiery inferno – being named after the poet, while several of the characters take on the monikers of mythical figures who appear in various underworld legends; Persephone, Charon     and the like). There are also ‘chapter headings’ which appear every now and then; denoting The Nine Circles of Hell – although strangely; they only go up to three and not the full nine as in ‘Dante’s Inferno’ – ultimately making these titles kind of redundant. Most importantly, according to Bordage – each of the seven inmates aboard the station is associated with one of The Seven Deadly Sins. For example, the obese giant Moloch represents gluttony (as he is always eating). While Caro regular Dominique Pinon (Delicatessen, City Of Lost Children) plays César – a man bound by pride. When César is mortally wounded he must set aside his sense of superiority in order to accept an offer of healing from Saint-Georges. If this is the case – that the inmates do indeed represent The Seven Deadly Sins – then it makes perfect sense (although it is never directly mentioned as such in the film) that Saint-Georges could conceivably be viewed as a literal representation of a ‘Sin-Eater’ (the term sin-eater – according to Wikipedia – refers to ‘a person who, through ritual means, would take on by means of food and drink the sins of a household, often because of a recent death, thus absolving the soul and allowing that person to rest     in peace’).

dante01 creature

According to co-writer Bordage; the octopus-like creatures which Saint-Georges plucks from the glowing insides of his fellow inmates and devours – apparently in     an act of healing – are creatures (which may or may not exist beyond Saint-Georges’ imagination) which feed upon people’s energy flow. As the writer reveals, “These creatures symbolize what eats at us … our private obsessions, our belief systems – the way we function. Simply put, it’s the inner sickness which causes imbalance.” Faith-healer – Sin-eater – Messiah. Whether Saint-Georges is any of these, all of these or something else entirely; is all open to interpretation – and Caro himself isn’t about to tell us one way or the other. As to whether these octopus creatures actually exist in reality or are merely a manifestation of Saint-Georges’ troubled psyche – Caro justifies the ambiguity woven into the piece as being part of his preference to not explain everything away, “That’s why I love David Lynch. He leaves things in the dark; which is why things aren’t clarified in the film. I like that a space is left for everyone to imagine what they want.”

dante01 lambert wilson

A major aspect of Jodorowsky’s concept for Dante 01 which initially attracted Caro to pick it up and run with it (as his first solo directing gig) was the fact that it is a story which takes place in a single location with a handful of characters and which could conceivably be realized on a limited budget. Also, as the setting of the story is a hermetically-sealed environment, there is a lot more scope here to create a fully-realized world with a noticable sense of claustrophobia being inherent in the design     of the sets (especially with such low ceilings) and the film makes good use of this. This sense of restriction also heightens the brutality of some of the more violent scenes (a frenzied stabbing of one of the inmates for example). The only design aspect which adversely affects the film for me, however, is the look of the cast.       It is only when a film’s entire cast sport shaved heads that one realizes just how crucial hair actually is in differentiating one character from another. This was also a major issue with Fincher’s Alien 3 – the fact that it is, at times (especially in scenes of high action) difficult to tell one inmate from another. It was less a problem in George Lucas’ THX 1138 (which Caro cites as a major inspiration) – most likely due to more care being taken in casting intentionally dissimilar-looking faces and body types. On a more positive note; lenser Jean Poisson’s luminous photography, with its comic book vibrancy is simply gorgeous to behold (with its violet, green and magenta hues) and gives the film reason to be seen based purely on its lensing alone. And the almost atonal thrum of the electronic score by Raphaël Elig and Eric Wenger is also effective in conveying a sense of Lynchian dread and unease – being at times very reminiscent of Orbital’s techno contributions to the Event Horizon score.

Dante 01 is a mostly engaging sci-fi prison drama with fantastical elements and         a strong visual sense and a lot going on under the surface. And while not nearly as elaborate as Delicatessen or City Of Lost Children, it is still an accomplished effort which makes the fact that Caro has not yet directed another feature of his own all     the more puzzling.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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2 Comments
  1. enleuk permalink

    SPOILERS, ending:

    Just wanted to say I didn’t think the ending was unexpected. The references to hell and the names made it obvious that it wasn’t just gonna be sci-fi, but something “myffic” to quote Terry Pratchett. The cross-shape at the end, the sacrifice, assuming the burden of all sins and the resurrection of the planet makes it pretty clear. I interpret it as an angel sent to purgatory to give the sinners there one last chance or an arch-angel sent to hell to restart all of humanity, including a test for the angel himself, or something along those lines. I assume the exact details are not meant to be known.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Wow – hey, I really love your interpretation Henrik! Makes me wanna see it again! 🙂

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