Hideo Nakata's disappointing Chatroom (read our review) is the tale of a group of kids who go online to escape their troubles and who are coerced into taking their own lives by similarly troubled teens. That's playing in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar as part of the official selection.
Also in the official selection, as a midnight screening, is Black Heaven, a tale of a group of kids who go online to escape their troubles and who are coerced into taking their own lives by similarly troubled teens. But while it's French, stars no-one you've heard of and is helmed by a director with little pedigree, don't assume Black Heaven is the also-ran here. For everything Chatroom does wrong, Black Heaven does right. It's a smart and engaging look at internet culture and the pressures, lies and intoxication of a virtual world. It may not be packed to the gills with references to Twitter and Facebook, but it certainly feels more relevant today than Chatroom does. Indeed, the latter seems to have been drawn from a mid-90s online world which exists only in its filmmakers' heads.
And rather than bash us over the head with the specifics of the differences between the online world and the real world – which in Chatroom are both live action elements starring the principal cast – here director Gilles Marchand (whose debut feature was Who Killed Bambi?) smartly chooses a computer-generated noir cityscape to show us his characters' avatars. And because we understand the attraction of the game, and its dark and brooding allure, we understand how his characters become trapped by the film's honey pot.
That honey pot is a woman, Sam (Louise Bourgoin), whose avatar is a singer at an exclusive club within the game. Our protagonist, Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) first encounters her in real life, when he saves her from a car quickly filling up with exhaust fumes. Encountering her online he soon realizes she had an escape route from the car, and there may be more to her dark conversations about dying.
Bourgoin, who's currently making waves in France as the star of Luc Besson's new film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, is suitably intoxicating as Sam and keeps us engaged throughout. Like Gaspard, we want to know what she's about from the moment she appears on screen. Leprince-Riguet, meanwhile, makes curious naivety his own as Gaspard, serving up a young man whose sense of intrigue and overactive libido justifies his relentless obsession with this woman.
Chatroom showed a bright and over-saturated online world that contrasted with a drab, dark real world London. Here, Marchand can be confident enough in his storyline to reverse that entirely. Gaspard and his friends live by the sea and the story seems to be set during summer. They're regularly at the beach, enjoying the sun. And yet the dark, imposing online world of the game is still impossibly attractive to them.
It's a confidently crafted duality, and while the story wavers at times, it succeeds in selling an ending that in weaker hands could have gone awry. That Marchand's sophomore effort as a director can trump the work of much more experienced hands is pretty impressive. Here's hoping Black Heaven makes the rounds in cinemas before Chatroom does.