Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival
by Morris Yang Featured Film

Red Rooms — Pascal Plante [Fantasia Fest ’23 Review]

August 4, 2023

In 2002, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival to a storm of controversy, eclipsed — for better or worse — only by Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible that year. The controversy bespoke radicality, and that radicality remains till this day: from its premise (two corporations vying for control over an anime studio producing 3D hentai) and themes (alienation, hyperreality, desensitization toward violence) to its nightmarishly clinical design, replete with enervating spectacles of corporate espionage and totality (even the film’s title neologizes the sacred and the profane), Demonlover marked a pivotal transition into cyberspace, cementing its fledgling world as amorphous, unknown, and incomplete. Assayas’ thriller was more than seductive — dangerous even — because of the uncharted and unchartable territories it sought to navigate; the rules of the thriller’s game had fundamentally altered in favor of actions, as opposed to actors. No longer could one recourse to the limits of epistemology as the world, having been confronted with an ontological crisis of faith in the aftermath of 9/11, stood on shaky ground; knowledge itself was found wanting and, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “there are unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

What we don’t know, then, forms the basis for much of our contemporary obsessions both profound and mundane. Philosophical skepticism has by-and-large filled the contemporary imagination at least since the Holocaust, but its practical realizations have nary seen such influence prior to the Internet. With breadth, depth, and anonymity permitted in the cyberspace, its users have taken their desires and tendencies to their logical conclusion, surpassing them where possible in manifestations of the imagination. Of especially grotesque concern is the capacity for anonymity itself to turn libertarian instinct into panoptic paranoia — we don’t know who each of us are, but we also don’t know who’s watching us — as demonstrated by its inscription into discourses of civil liberties, cryptocurrency, and, tellingly, horror. On the Internet, fear is democratized by the unknown and our impulses, as a result, plumb the depths in search for more: conspiracies, gore channels, pedophilia forums, as well as the stuff of many urban legends — red rooms.

In Pascal Plante’s Red Rooms, this urban legend is assumed to be true. Hosted on Tor, a browser intended for anonymous browsing, the red room is a space that crystallizes human depravity and renders it expressible: viewers typically bid for the right to dictate the fates of human captives in these rooms, who are then slaughtered live on camera. In theory, it offers a strange comfort, consigning evil to a designated locale yet situating it close enough for queasy effect. In practice, supply and demand are equally accessible; where the hard-headed tend to camp within the latter, the paranoid are drawn to the former. Red Rooms takes as its starting premise the exhumation of several tapes from this alleged space as evidence for a crime perpetrated by one Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) against three teenage girls. Yet the film, strictly speaking, isn’t about the crime, and neither is it really interested in Chevalier’s motivations for rape and murder. Instead, Plante shifts attention away from victim and aggressor, and onto the spectator, a lean and athletic young woman named Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy).

Kelly-Anne’s interest in Chevalier’s case exceeds the ordinary citizen’s. While its high-profile and grisly nature generates significant buzz and televised publicity, the courtroom proceedings take place behind closed doors, open only to a handful of members of the public (she among them). Over the span of months, both prosecution and defense attempt, respectively, to indict and exonerate Chevalier, while Kelly-Anne follows their attempts closely, forgoing her luxury apartment to sleep on the streets by the courthouse for guaranteed access each morning. Joining her is Clémentine (Laurie Babin), another young woman more disheveled in appearance and, in addition, convinced of Chevalier’s innocence, maintaining that the authorities have executed a witch hunt on the basis of physiognomy and sexist profiling to frame him. The mysterious and otherwise taciturn Kelly-Anne soon warms up to Clémentine, whether out of pure curiosity or loneliness, or from affection toward the latter’s naïveté.

The triumph of Red Rooms lies in this fleeting and tentative connection between its characters. Clémentine, clearly infatuated with Chevalier, resists the media’s sensationalism by importing her own (quite literally, having hitchhiked all the way to Montreal), whereas Kelly-Anne observes it dispassionately from a high-rise bubble of personal and financial success (by day, she models for a fetishist website; at night, she decimates competitors in online poker). Both embody the two primary sides of Internet-mediated obsession, as Clémentine seeks to reify the accused’s mind while Kelly-Anne directs hers down the rabbit hole, stalking the victims’ families as if to satiate her thirst for knowing. “You take your time, you’re patient, and you bleed them dry,” Kelly-Anne counsels her wonderstruck acquaintance on the art of poker. Their brief friendship, if it can be called one, invokes no Grand Guignol of romance or bloodlust, but settles for a rapport that teeters gradually into disillusionment.

Similarly, the film forgoes its titular suggestions of instant psychological gratification. It does not revel in the gratuity of the murders, and barely reveals the offending footage. Instead, the blood douses our protagonists’ faces through reflection, a crimson red emanating from the screen and enveloping the air in a dim, irresistible aura — the kind paradoxically referenced by Walter Benjamin precisely as that essence, or unique cultural context, of art which resists mechanical reproduction. In this light, their respective obsessive pursuits can be surmised as a perpetually deferred endeavor to access this haloed essence; to permeate, understand, or simply come face to face with a vision of society abandoned and superegos effaced. This endeavor is paralleled, in lighter terms, by the hubbub of legal drama, which Red Rooms smartly relegates to the periphery, save for a captivating sequence early on expounding on the matters of the case. Though its participants spar with evidence, the jury’s battle seems fundamentally doomed to the court of opinion.

At its heart, Plante’s follow-up to 2020’s eerily counterfactual Nadia, Butterfly (which was about its eponymous Olympic swimmer’s existential crisis after retirement) documents a deeply uncertain milieu where both physical and psychological terrains prove fundamentally unknowable. This milieu — in which “hurtcore,” or extreme child sex abuse material emphasizing bodily harm, proliferates on the Dark Web — lies at a discomfiting moral nexus easily blurred by accusations of sadism “inflict[ed]” on one hand and morbid curiosity on the other. We’re not sure where Kelly-Anne stands exactly: infinitely well-versed in hacking and cybersecurity, she maintains a quietly ruthless façade both in the courtroom and behind the screen, even as her excitement lets slip as the inevitable takes place and is uncovered. And therein lies the genius and aggression of Red Rooms as it reconfigures the landscape presciently surveyed by Demonlover into an uncanny and mature ecosystem of ubiquitous virtualization. Assayas, too, had a red room (the “Hellfire Club”), installed for sadomasochistic gratification. But Red Rooms is plural and indefinite, a cyber thriller teeming with the equal promise and peril of forbidden fruit. “It’s not your world. You shouldn’t see them.” Who will listen?

Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 3.