Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Marion (Pauline Etienne), a teenage couple spending the summer in the South of France, happen upon a cell-phone belonging to a sexy and enigmatic young woman named Audrey (Louise Bourgoin). Intrigued by cryptic text messages exchanged between Audrey and a man named Dragon, the youngsters trail the couple’s car into the woods, only to find them attempting to gas themselves to death. Horrified, Gaspard intervenes but while he proves too late to save Dragon, Audrey survives. Some time later, Gaspard meets Audrey again and discovers she is deeply obsessed with an online role-playing game called Black Hole. Although Audrey’s sinister brother, Vincent (Melvil Poupaud), warns she is mentally unstable, Gaspard logs onto Black Hole and foolishly attempts to romance her via his virtual alter-ego, but is instead drawn into a far darker game.
What might otherwise have been a fairly involving high concept thriller becomes in the hands of French writer-director Gilles Marchand a po-faced exercise in phony profundity. Black Heaven - known in France as L’autre monde - shares superficial similarities with the Italian sci-fi thriller Nirvana (1997) and the more jubilant Japanese anime Summer Wars (2010), both films that use the subjects of online gaming, social networking and virtual reality to pose probing philosophical questions about the ephemeral nature of existence and the human heart. However, despite intertwining two stories, one set in the real world, the other within the bland computer animated landscape of “Black Hole”, Marchand’s facile fable is resolutely earthbound and nowhere as thought-provoking as it seems to think it is.
Co-written by director Dominik Moll, for whom Marchand co-wrote the scripts for the superior Harry, He's Here to Help (2000) and Lemming (2005), the film delivers a feeble commentary on the dangers of seeking solace in virtual worlds or communicating through fantasy avatars. As Gaspard immerses himself deeper in the world of Black Hole, where Audrey adopts the guise of a nightclub chanteuse in a backless dress crooning “Save the Last Dance”, he starts behaving like a jerk towards Marion, eventually dumping her shortly after they have slept together for the first time. To begin with their relationship seems like it will be the central focus of the film yet it ultimately jostles alongside several unresolved sub-plots including Audrey’s sexual liaison with Gaspard’s boorish friend Ludo (Ali Marhyar) which is similarly cast into the wind. Gaspard’s eventual life lesson, that one can never be certain the person you are talking to online is exactly who they seem, is simply far too trite after enduring a narrative so seemingly aimless, slow and maddeningly esoteric.
Although more believably fantastical than the ridiculous fish-gutting antics on view in David Cronenberg’s otherwise intriguing Existenz (1999), the virtual environment of Black Hole still seems far too drab to have inspired the fervent following it supposedly enjoys. The animation design is either deliberately stripped down or else just plain uninspired with large sections where Gaspard and Audrey’s avatars converse in stilted, awkward English. Watching someone play a computer game does not make for compelling cinema though at least Louise Bourgoin proves a seductive presence as the enigmatic femme fatale, albeit more so in the flesh than online. The fetching actress went on to give gregarious performance for director Luc Besson as the titular heroine in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010). Yet even her charismatic turn fails to prevent Black Heaven from limping listlessly towards a sorely anticlimactic ending whose parting message seems to be if you stumble across someone attempting suicide just leave them to it.