Black Heaven Review

It’s been 7 years since Facebook launched, and 8 for Second Life, but if Black Heaven (The Other World in its original French) is to be believed, the internet is still a shadowy and lawless place where angels fear to tread, and predatory social clubs exploit the naive fantasies of the unindoctrinated. Drawing in equal measure on Hitchcockian voyeurism and modern narratives of temptation like Wall Street, Heaven constructs a largely familiar world in which the bored are led away from their boring lives into the netherworld of online role playing games, although it’s hard to see how that could be new and unfamiliar to anyone by now. But instead of constructing an analogy for the increasing virtualization of modern life, Black Heaven keeps its implications safe enough to not alienate who still refuses to have an email address. Black Heaven may push its characters to the edge, but it’s not bold enough to push its audience there.

Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Marion (Pauline Etienne) are two French teenagers on the cusp of full-blown adult sexuality, but are held back by their own awkwardness and the strict rulings of her father. One day coming back from the beach, they come upon a lost cell-phone, and in a fit of that boredom peculiar to teenagers in the summer time, they decide to track down the owner and follow him. Once they do, they discover him dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in his own car; an apparent suicide. Beside him is Audrey (Louise Bourgoin), unconscious but still breathing. After running into her again, Gaspard is slowly introduced to the world of Black Hole, an online game with addictive properties similar to Second Life. There, he meets Sam, an avatar with physical characteristics similar to Audrey, who seduces men in the game then convinces them to commit suicide in reality. Seemingly unfazed by this portrait of complete mental health, Gaspard is drawn closer to both Sam and Audrey (as well as her shady companion Vincent), and away from Marion, who’s starting to come around on the whole ‘having sex” thing. 

As is the case with so much narrative media (and this is a problem that cuts across genres) Black Heaven never takes to hear the old journalism maxim about finding where the story is. The film spends nearly all of its time with Gaspard, who, despite a convincing performance by Leprince-Ringuet, just isn’t all that interesting. He is essentially a clear looking glass (really his only defining character trait is that he is a teenage boy who finds women attractive, and would like to sleep with them) through which an equally blank audience could look onto the film’s events, as powerless to influence them as Gaspard seems to be. Really, the true protagonist of Black Heaven is Audrey, whose choices, vision, and pathos have willed into being the world that Gaspard is now sinking into. A truly fascinating movie could have been made about her and Vincent, and the broken hunger that they share; that film could have perhaps also explained how suicide is in any way sexually alluring, which would have cleared up a lot of the motivation behind why Gaspard does most of the things that he does. As is, Audrey is reduced to little more than that old object of desire: the mysterious blond woman, while Marion has little to do but tend to Gaspard as serve as Audrey's polar opposite.

Additionally, the world inside Black Hole is visualized, with several scenes playing out as Gaspard plays the game. This turns out to be a poor choice for a number of reasons. First, the game is realized as a dark cityscape that in recent memory recalls Tron: Legacy, but in actuality is a dead ringer for the 90s cartoon Reboot, one of the very first attempts at bringing computer animation to a larger audience. Though it might be accurately reflective of the technological level that these games actually possess, their actual visualization here makes them seem more retrograde than seductive. Also, they remove a sort of European naturalism from the film almost entirely, which up until that point was probably the best thing that Black Heaven had going for it. In spite of its fairly familiar storyline, writer/director Gilles Marchand had the good sense to give his characters and environment enough room to breath, making what otherwise wouldn’t be at least passably compelling. Once those scenes enter however (not to mention a few late stage developments), Heaven reveals itself to be almost puritanical in its sexual politics, and positively cretaceous in its ideas about what constitutes something being exotic and exciting to a modern audience. Black Heaven could have broken new ground, but when it comes time to push forward into territory, it’s all too happy to settle where millions have boldly gone before.

DVD Bonus Features

The trailer is included.

"Black Heaven" is on sale April 12, 2011 and is not rated. Thriller. Written and directed by Gilles Marchand. Starring Gregoire Leprince Ringuet, Louise Bourgoin, Melvil Poupaud, Pauline Etienne.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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