French Frights : Marc Caro’s Dante 01

After his teamwork with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro made only one movie. This is the story of Dante 01.

Before Jean-Pierre Jeunet made Amelie in 2001, he worked as a duo with Marc Caro. The team made two movies together, Delicatessen which tells the tale of inhabitants living in a building in a post-apocalyptic world and the City of the Lost Children, in which a little girl and a freak fight against a mad scientist who’s stealing dreams from children. For the anecdote, it was this movie which set Ron Pearlman back on track, for the actor thought of abandoning his acting career before he went on to act in the City of Lost Children, what’s even more interesting is knowing Marc Caro had to fight both Jeunet and the producer Claudie Ossard to get Pearlman this role. That is one of the things the industry owes to Caro but it’s not the only one. Some will argue the Caro/Jeunet association were the best Jeunet movies, for Caro’s darkness gave more balance to Jeunet’s fairy tale dreamscape.

The separation went on when Jeunet, who had an American agent at the time, got the job directing Alien: Resurrection. Sure, since this would be their last dance, he invited Caro to design some of the costumes. Talking of this precise journey, Caro has been heard to state that there wasn’t much of him in the final product, except for maybe some gears and the pirate crew.

You see, Caro once was an illustrator and a writer in Métal Hurlant. The famous comic magazine which would go on to shape cyberpunk and other scifi-esque endeavours of the time. Being young, Caro also made fanzine on the side, for there were many fanzines in France in the 80s. This is how he met Jean-Pierre Jeunet, by selling him his very own fanzine.

They made a few shorts together, with puppets and stuff. Caro had worked in comic book but he felt he missed what comic books lacked: movement. And so, after discovering one another, and working on two animated shorts which both earned awards, they went on and directed Le Bunker de la Dernière Rafale. This roughly translates into The Bunker of the Last Burst and you can watch it now:

As cited earlier, both filmmakers would finally split up. Jean-Pierre Jeunet would go on to direct Alien: Resurrection and Amélie. Marc Caro… Marc Caro would not release another movie for fifteen years. I empathize on the releasing part for Caro actually worked on a lot of film during that time. Movies such as Jan Kounen’s Blueberry, the adaptation of a comic book by Jean Giraud/Moebius, one of the founding fathers of Métal Hurlant and so was the cycle closed.

Sometimes during the early 2000s, Christophe Gans who at the time rode on the successful wave of The Brotherhood of the Wolf, presented Marc Caro to Richard Grandpierre, his producer at the time, who possessed Eskwad. Nowadays, Eskwad mostly produce comedy movies with easily recognizable faces, but at the time, Grandpierre tried to put his toe in the shallow rivers of French genre films. I read on a blog post that Dante 01 was once called Mentasm (a portmanteau word for mentality and phantasm) this is not true. Mentasm was a movie Caro wrote before Dante 01 which would have told the story of a lonesome prisoner having to fight an A.I. on a spaceship but in a philosophic kind of way, a meta (if it’s even possible) 2001 A Space Odyssey. Sadly, the project needed much more money than Grandpierre was able to secure.

So, Mentasm didn’t go through but Caro never short on answers decided he would create a movie which needed a lot less money. At the time, it appeared Caro had contacted Alejandro Jodorowsky for a project we know little about. Still this idea of working with different creators mostly versed in spirituality led him to meet Pierre Bordage.

If you’re not French, this name may not raise any bell, but here, in France, Pierre Bordage (even now, twelve years after the fact) is one of the most recognizable faces in science-fiction, and let me tell you that science-fiction doesn’t have any sort of recognition here, this speaks volume on the kind of success Bordage has.

Pierre Bordage never thought he would one day be one of France’s most famous sci-fi writer. As a child, he destined himself to become priest, he went as far as beginning clerical studies before this turned him away from the Church. You see, Pierre Bordage thinks nothing is further away from Jesus Christ’s teaching than the Roman Catholic Church. The young man he was at the time thought what all religion missed was spirituality and so began a grand quest, which took him to Asia through various job in order to prove that mind was much more than mere matter.

Legend has it, much like Jack Kerouac, Pierre Bordage once sat and started to write. He wrote for 6 months, an opus of more than 1000 pages. A piece he would call The Warriors of Silence which would finally be published in 1993. Bordage claims that even though he liked scifi, he wasn’t really an expert on the genre, in an interview I once heard him clearly say he didn’t know what was science-fantasy when he wrote a book fitting in this category.

The first book by Pierre Bordage

Bordage got published by the Atalante, thanks to a former professor of his, before his success unabled the book to be re-released in a pocket form. Soon, the author was working on videogame adaptations in the likes of Atlantis — which was made by the French videogame studio Cryo, reponsible for TOmb Raider — and he penned the script for an animated movie on Kaena: The Prophecy before being fired and having solely to write the adaptation of said film. This didn’t seem to have altered his faith since when Marc Caro contacted him, explaining that one of his projects with Alejandro Jodorowsky had just fallen through, Pierre Bordage happily agreed to help him.

We may never know what really happened during the pre-production phase of Dante 01. Except for the making-of, both creators are kind of mute on the subject, except the usual quote: we had too small of a budget. Truth is, if you search in the CNC internet archives in France, you’ll learn that the movie was built upon a budget of €6,820,000. In an interview he gave to France culture in 2019, Marc Caro states that they went €400,000 over-budget which puts the total of funds for the film as high as €7,220,000. Pretty comfortable for a first solo feature.

The movie was shot in the studios of Bry-Sur-Marne, the whole prison was built there. Watching the making-of, which was shot by Caro’s own brother Eric, it’s hard not to notice that Lambert Wilson finds the whole ordeal really hard. Another thing that’s hard to miss is the propension of everyone on set, not to refer to the movie as a scifi flicks, as if scifi was a dirty word. This is a state of mind quite common in French cinema production, but seeing bald-headed actors wearing yellow suit in a Blade Runner decorum saying they’re not making a scifi film still is a sight to behold.

Truth is, Marc Caro himself joked about Dante 01 being spiritual-fiction, a portmanteau word they made up with Bordage. But what’s most unique about Dante 01 is the real mix it represents of both Caro’s imagery and Bordage’s fiction. The film opens with a voice-over which promises us to narrates the story rightfully, this is a practice commonly found in Bordage’s books, for whom the author states that he always thrive to make his world the more palpable to the reader, and what better way is there of making this than to create fake archives ? But Dante 01 possesses other figures, Bordage’s books are usually built upon, in it you can find a lone hero trying to fit in a strange environment before meeting some support in the form of a woman he will later have to save. Those are the foundations upon which Caro’s movie is built.

There’s also Marc Caro’s direction, the baldness, the decorum, the spaceship, everything in this film would remind you of the Métal Hurlant comics of the 80s to which Marc Caro once contributed. There’s also the weird shots, camera positions we once witnessed in Delicatessen or the City of the Lost Children, proof of a real director being at work behind the curtains. Lambert Wilson addresses this in the making-of, stating that Caro reminds him of the Wachowsky, for the three of them began in comics and they all have this really precise vision of what the spectator should see or not.

Still, even with his spiritual scenario — with each prisoner representing sins and a chakra states proudly Bordage — Dante 01 was not a box office success. I guess the different levels of lecture the movie were lost on most viewers under the much more obvious Christian religious symbolism. In a way, this is sad because we will never know what Caro had in stock for us next.

All was not lost on this movie, the long history of cinema has at least one feature made solely by Marc Caro, a guy who once stated that he never created anything to get famous, that he would gladly did it for free, seeing he just liked making stuff up, like Georges Méliès, his spiritual father in the early 1900s. Nobody would ever make me believe that Caro’s love for cinema isn’t as deep as the Mariana Trench.

As for Richard Grandpierre, he still owns Eskwad, and truth is, he produced the Tuches, a franchise spanning four movies, all very big successes in the French box-office. That’s a career one can be proud of, even though it’s kind of disheartening to know that when Grandpierre gave up on genre films, the new wave of French extremism kind of stopped, abruptly.

Marc Caro went on to work on other movies such as Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void and even if he always states he didn’t have the budget his story needed, he doesn’t seem quite unhappy about Dante 01, on his interview for Filmotv, the director went as far as saying he thought he was the inspiration for James Matter and Steven Saint Leger’s Lockout; a movie which had borrowed so much from John Carpenter’s Escape from New-York, it was condemned by a French court to pay royalties to Big John. Pierre Bordage, who is still as famous as ever, is also eager to talk about Dante 01, much more than he would about Eden Log.

And this is what I liked about Dante 01. You see, on this particular movie set, the first assistant director was a young guy named Franck Vestiel who had previously worked on Central Nuit — a famous French police tv show. Vestiel wanted to make a scifi movie, it was not called Eden Log at the time, but he would go on to direct it. This would be his only movie, written by none-other than Pierre Bordage. A small film released in only four theatres across France and still one of the most powerful scifi films ever made on French soil.

A small reminder that even when all didn’t come as planned, a little good can still come out of it.

This would surely make Marc Caro smile.

Summary: Dante 01 tells the tale of a prisoner transported to a prison satellite floating above Dante, a ball of fire of a planet. Problem is, the newcomer whom the inmates soon baptized Saint-Georges can’t remember a thing about himself or anyone else for that matter. Slowly but surely, Saint-Georges begins to deliver his fellow prisoners of the evil that’s eating at them.

In the same vein, you may like The Snowpiercer Saga, in which you’ll discover how a forgotten French comic book became a Korean movie and a US tv show.

You may also like to read the first paper I wrote in French Frights which talks of Christian Volckman’s first movie a cyberpunk animated thriller named Renaissance.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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