The Laplace's Demon
A glass in free fall. Have you ever thought if it is possible to calculate into how many pieces it can break into? After numerous experiments, a team of researchers succeeds in doing just this apparently impossible task. Attracted to their experiment, a mysterious professor invites the scientists in his isolated mansion to know more about their studies. However, when they arrive, they are not greeted by their host but they are faced with a strange model of the mansion, in which some absolutely normal but incredible actions are acted. The researchers will soon understand to be involved in a new experiment in which they'll have to play a very different role than usual: that of the glass in free fall.
The tagline for the Richard Donner-helmed Superman from 1978 stated, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
And this popped into my movie trivia-addled brain while watching the new Italian mystery/thriller, The Laplace’s Demon, screened at the 17th Annual Screamfest in Hollywood.
Seven scientists, working for the same company – take a boat across the sea, manned by a salty sea captain named Alfred – to take part in an experiment under the eye of someone named Professor Cornelius (it all feels very Agatha Christie). Naturally, none of these people actually know the Professor – but out of curiosity and obligation (led there by their head honcho Isaac) they go. Once inside this cavernous and mysterious mansion (with only one way out – a locked down elevator) they’ll gain clues via a VHS tape and more importantly, a detailed scale model of the mansion itself – with chess pieces representing each one of them. The thing is, said chess pieces move in the mini-mansion – in real time with the movement of the guests they represent. Mystery, danger, clue-solving and disappearances ensue.
And with the mention of the all-important chess pieces, I’m brought to my reminiscence of “You’ll believe a man can fly”. While there is some discussion in this film of “flying” (I won’t spoil it), I was more in line with stating this about The Laplace’s Demon; “You’ll believe that watching people watching chess-pieces will be the ultimate in suspense”.
And it’s true. As things begin to happen, and they’re mirrored by the movement of the chess pieces in the model – you’ll see very little of the actual events being represented by the chess pieces. The film has you watching the chess pieces move and watching the reactions of those watching the chess pieces.
If someone had told me this would be a central conceit of the film and that it would move you to the edge of your seat in the throes of suspenseful anticipation – I would have called them crazy!
And yet, here we are.
It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers are fans of Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting. The black & white cinematography, the placement of multiple characters at various levels within the frame – and the “the less you show, the more frightening it is” – all seem to call-out a deep love and appreciation for that seminal fright-fest.
There was a point (actually several) throughout the film, where I threw up my hands – not in exasperation – but in what can only be described as pure audience joyfulness. One moment of joy comes about when the group discovers a hidden painting. The entire sequence is utterly insane, but so well done – you too might throw your hands in the air with unbridled appreciation for what just happened.
I sometimes consider myself jaded – irritated by the sheer number of copycat horror nonsense (torture-porn, found footage, etc.) which comes across my desk – so when something this amazing falls into my lap, I can’t help but gush over its brilliance.
I hate to be “that guy”, but I don’t think this film will be for a wider audience. Not that they won’t go into it with great intrigue and anticipation – but it’s pretty high-brow, taking on subjects of free will and the magical world of mathematics and the science of trying to predict human behavior.
Naturally, there’s a twist at the end – and I wasn’t shocked per se, but it was a good time… until it became a great time. You think it is going one way, and then with a seemingly throw-away bit from earlier in the film, revisited – it’ll end up perfectly (and deliciously) shocking and you’ll once again find your hands in the air. Bravo!
It’s a large ensemble cast, and there’s very little as far as character development. And my avid readers of 3 know how important such things are to me. But when you know that the focus of this film is the plot and the intricacies of the film’s structure – you’ll put aside the need to really get to know these characters. That’s not to say they aren’t all interesting – the actors play their two-dimensional parts with as much verve and gusto as possible. They’re all seasoned performers and they understand this stylized film they are a part of, and that their characters are not the main focus. And in that, you’ll appreciate the film even more – seeing that the filmmakers and all involved fully understand the proper way to guide and manipulate the audience to see and focus upon the most important things – the plot’s wonderful twists and turns.
But for course, since the film keeps you so firmly on edge – we must care something about these eight souls, right?
It takes a bit of time to get going – for several reasons. One, it’s mostly in Italian, so as with all sub-titled films, you have to rewire your brain a bit to get into the groove. The film’s also in black & white and is highly stylized on top of that. So with all of these bits thrown at you from the get-go, you’ll need a few minutes to adjust. But once you do, and things in the film start to cook – there’s no stopping this spiraling journey into awesomeness.
On that same token, this film is dripping with suspense. As time goes on and it becomes clear that at certain times – certain things will take place (we know it and the characters know it), you’ll find yourself steeped in dread as each of these moments draws near. “I see you shiver with antici…”
Chatting with co-writer/co-star Silvano Bertolin after the film, I was told that the entire “Laplace’s Demon” central idea was something of an afterthought. This concept – which feels so ingrained in the film’s story and is so effortlessly included – was discovered and added – while they were already shooting.
Mind = blown.
Originally titled the very fitting Clockworks, I can’t imagine the film without this theory at its core. And the fact that it was added late in the development of the piece makes the film all the more impressive and mesmerizing.
And so, with just days between this review and the previous one out of Screamfest – already, here’s another 5-star rating. There’s very little with which I can find fault (in fact – nothing comes to mind) – and so this highest of ratings is a no-brainer.
The Laplace’s Demon is a (yet to be fully discovered) masterpiece in manipulation, style, nail-biting suspense and jaw-droppingly impressive story structure. Do. Not. Miss. It.
“You’ll believe a man can fly” – or in this case – you’ll believe that chess pieces moving through a scale-model mansion, will be the most exciting and breathless thing you’ve seen in years.
And yes, I realize how absurd that may sound – but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth.
The simplest way to describe this movie experience? Wow.
The Laplace’s Demon is still playing the festival circuit. So do yourself a favor – use your own free will (ahem) and seek this out.