Real and virtual worlds collide, but the result falls fairly short of paradise in genre-junkie Gilles Marchand’s “Black Heaven.” Playing too much the god over his characters to make them exist palpably onscreen, the vet scribe (“Red Lights,” “Lemming”) inserts them into a twisted intrigue of online gaming, adolescent love and killer blonds that’s so overloaded with MacGuffins and other trickery, it feels forever on the verge of crashing its own credibility. Still, there are some inventive ideas at work, which often benefit from the film’s surgically precise stylistics. “Heaven’s” numbers should be neither black nor white, but gray.
It’s vacation time in the intensely sunny and lushly inviting Marseilles, and curiosity seeker Gaspard (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and his sweet-faced g.f. Marion (Pauline Etienne) look headed for several months of summer lovin’. But a major monkey-wrench is thrown at their relationship when they begin tracking the callers of a cell phone found in a pool locker, and the investigation leads Gaspard into the clutches of Audrey (Louise Bourgoin), a vampish vixen they rescue from an attempted suicide.
Audrey also goes by the virtual name of Sam and participates in the online game Black Hole, a heavily gothic and vaguely futuristic world that looks like Second Life by way of the Wachowski brothers. In one of the pic’s more intriguing stylistic ploys, scenes switch between live-action and computer-animated sequences without warning, the stygian urban landscapes of the game contrasting sharply with the cheery vistas of southern France, while the sound design in both worlds remains layered and realistic.
But the choice also has its drawbacks, and as Gaspard is pulled away from Marion toward Audrey’s “black hole” (the metaphor all too obvious), their characters behave increasingly like their virtual clones, blindly following the commands of a screenplay that moves them through the movie with the determination of a gamer manipulating his mouse and keyboard.
While credibility is increasingly stretched thin (especially in a lame ripoff of “Rebel Without a Cause’s” drag-racing scene), there are still some aesthetically impressive moments, mostly in the sequences created by animation director Djibril Glissant. Widescreen lensing by Celine Bozon is extraordinarily crisp and rigorous, while cutting by seasoned editor Nelly Quettier was probably too dependent on the script’s rock-solid structure to shed an unneeded 10 or 12 minutes of action.
Performances are strong across the board, though their range is often limited by the coldly dominating way Marchand handles the storytelling. The up-and-coming Etienne (“Private Lessons,” “Silent Voice”) fares best as Marion, her eyes conveying levels of depth and emotion as she watches Gaspard slip away from her, while Bourgoin’s Audrey is too weighed down by all the dark makeup and skimpy clothes (when she’s dressed at all) to feel like much more than a cyber pinup girl.
Soundtrack by French electro rockers M83 favors John Carpenter-esque themes, which befit the stylistic ambitions of a movie that’s better at making its alterative universe look real than at bringing the real world to life.