Karlovy Vary 2023 review: Red Rooms (Pascal Plante)

“Extraordinarily dark and unexpectedly moving, Red Rooms is a film where we have the answers, but it’s the questions that we are seeking.”

As once stated by the great Thomas Pynchon in one of his timeless postmodern works, “If they can get you asking the right questions, they don’t need to worry about the answers,” indicating that it isn’t always the resolution that makes for a compelling story, but rather the journey one takes to get there. It would appear as if this concept was fully in play during the creation of Red Rooms (Les chambres rouges), in which Pascal Plante directs a disquieting and harrowing psychological thriller that focuses on the unexpected connection between a serial killer accused of the murder of three teenage girls, and the mysterious young woman who observes his trial in great detail, commuting between the drab courthouse and her cosmopolitan apartment. There she immerses herself in the online world, becoming a part of what is clearly a sinister corner of the internet populated by the most perverse and demented individuals, who she somehow views as her kinfolk, or at least pawns in a game of deception she has been playing for quite a while, as shown by her unnerving level of expertise in this field. Extraordinarily dark and unexpectedly moving, Red Rooms is a film where we have the answers, but it’s the questions that we are seeking, whether the motive for a murder or the reason for the protagonist’s presence at this particular trial, which unravels and becomes the foundation of this terrifying but brilliant examination of the human mind, as seen through the perspective of someone who has gone past the point of recovery, and who simply has to come to terms with the moral corruption that surrounds her.

From its first moments, we are immersed in the psychological aspects of Red Rooms, which is constructed with a two-pronged approach to the story of a serial killer. The first is his trial, with the legal procedures shown in vivid detail, particularly in a twenty-minute opening scene in which both the prosecution and defense present their cases, shot in two unbroken takes. The second is the story of Kelly-Anne, whose involvement in the case is not made clear, but she has some connection to it, the exploration of which is the heart of the story. The film is a dense psychological character study in which we are presented with a protagonist of ambiguous background, but whose presence in the story is far from incidental. Over these two hours, we follow her through the trial, quietly piecing together the fragments of a mystery, all the while peering voyeuristically into her life, observing her daily routine, one that is quite conventional with the exception of the moments of truly disturbing behaviour that become more frequent the more familiar we become with her activities. This all presents a haunting depiction of reality, one in which nothing quite makes sense or works in the way it should based on our expectations, but rather reflects a darker aspect of our world, one that most of us would have preferred not to know about, since it proves the existence of a portion of society who have gone past the point of being despicable, and border on inhuman in their desires and actions.  The tone the film sets is extremely disturbing, and it never quite abates, keeping us on the edge of sanity as we traverse these shocking moments.

Considering the depth of this film and how much it relies on character development to set the foundation for the story, it isn’t surprising that Red Rooms features one of the year’s most unsettling but brilliant performances, by Juliette Gariépy, who takes on the role of Kelly-Anne, daring to venture into the darkest and most insidious recesses of the human condition in order to bring this story to life. Her performance is driven by a steadfast commitment to the many disparate ideas that exist at the heart of the narrative – despite her burgeoning modeling career and apparent wealth, Kelly-Anne is a profoundly lonely young woman who finds satisfaction only when she is able to feed her cravings for more unorthodox experiences, which lead her down a dark path from which there isn’t any real chance of recovery. A quiet performance composed mainly of intimate details, facilitated by a strong collaboration between the actor and her director, the work Gariépy does throughout Red Rooms is simultaneously impressive and terrifying, which is quite an achievement for a role that seems extremely simple in theory, but is rendered as effortlessly complex in the capable hands of the cast and crew who craft this fascinating film around her.  Red Rooms is arguably more interested in using the character of Kelly-Anne as a figurehead for a generation of people who fall victim to the perverse hypnosis of the internet, but Gariépy works to define the character as more than just an archetype, turning in one of the most haunting performances of the year.

Plante has gradually developed a strong body of work, crafting films that are not immediately notable, but prove that he has genuine talents, and is well on his way to becoming one of the most intriguing voices in contemporary Canadian cinema. Red Rooms seems like the best opportunity yet for him to break through and become more well-known in terms of global cinema, granted it requires an audience prepared for his darker sensibilities and penchant for stories that are rarely comfortable or accessible to the faint of heart. It takes some time for us to fully acclimate to this film and everything it represents, and it becomes a process of patiently waiting to unearth new details, which can be quite frustrating, and is entirely intentional. Plante is not interested in giving us all the answers – even by the time the film ends, everything is still ambiguous, and there is far too much left unsaid for it to be entirely resolved, a deliberate choice that plays into this film’s tendency towards distorting reality and challenging our perceptions of the facts, which we come to realize are not always all that objective. A peculiar but brilliant examination of criminal psychology, taken from an unexpected perspective, Red Rooms is one of the best films in recent memory on the subject of obsession, and how it can drive an individual to their breaking point, after which there isn’t any chance of meaningful salvation. Both as an exploration of the legal system and as a stern warning about the dangers of the online world, this film is exceptional, and proves to be one of the more effective psychological thrillers of the past couple of years, and a film that will linger on in the viewer’s mind long after those haunting final moments.