The mesmerizing first half of Black Heaven makes you tingle with anticipation. Has someone actually had the temerity to remake David Lynch’s Blue Velvet? That’s the impression French filmmaker Gilles Marchand gives during the early portions of his would-be thriller. Once again, we have a young, naïve couple, Gaspard (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Marion (Pauline Etienne) led down a sinister rabbit hole, not by a severed ear but by a misplaced cell phone containing incriminating text messages and photos of a beguiling blond woman wearing a black hood.
After some quick detective work, the novice sleuths are shadowing the woman, Sam (the magnetic Louise Bourgoin), and the sender of the texts, the stern Dragon (Swann Arlaud). Marion follows him into a hardware store where he buys duct tape, pipes and tubes. What does he intend to do with them? Sam, meanwhile, waits for him in their car, seemingly oblivious to her companion’s plans.
What happens next is wholly unexpected — and invokes Blue Velvet’s exploration of our curiosity about the strange and unknowable. The weirder things get, the more irresistible they become to Gaspard, whose sexual attraction to Sam pulls him even closer to the flame.
As the plot of Black Heaven thickens with visits to dangerous drug dealers, 1950s-style games of chicken and a virtual-reality computer game in which Sam is a torch singer (like Isabella Rossellini in Lynch’s film), the movie grabs your interest and sustains it. Scenes in sun-baked Marseilles give way to the dark, noirish, surreal territory of 3D cyber space. Some decisions Gaspard makes inside the game have great consequences in the real world.
Marchand, who previously wrote some crafty thrillers (Red Lights, With a Friend Like Harry), knows how to layer his story with various shades of sultry intrigue. He is also a deft editor: The movie contains some smashingly effective jump cuts. Marchand just has no idea how to resolve the elaborate puzzle he’s built, and once Black Heaven has to start providing some answers, it collapses into a pile of hackneyed contrivances and ridiculous revelations. Too bad. The set-up, at least, would make Lynch proud.
Cast: Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Louise Bourgoin, Melvil Poupaud, Pauline Etienne, Pierre Niney, Ali Marhyar, Patrick Descamps, Swann Arlaud.
Director: Gilles Marchand.
Screenwriters: Gilles Marchand, Dominik Moll.
Producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal.
An IFC Films studios release. Running time: 105 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, animated violence, adult themes. Opens Friday March 18 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.