One of the most exciting things in cinema is when a film’s ideas are echoed in the very methodology of its construction. You don’t see it that often (Tangerine and Escape From Tomorrow leap to mind as recent examples), but when you do, it’s borderline transcendental. The Laplace’s Demon, by Giordiano Giulivi, follows the same pattern: it’s a flawed film, but the unusual, meticulous nature of its production serves to support its story in a foundational way.
Talking about The Laplace’s Demon, it’s hard to tell whether to start with the story of the film or the story of the production. The story takes place over a single night, but the film was shot over seven years. Though set in a sprawling mansion on a craggy island, the whole movie was shot in a tiny basement, with the locations and sets created digitally and rear-projected behind the actors. This isn’t green screen - it wasn’t a case of shooting first and asking questions of an effects suite later. Every backdrop in the film had to be planned out meticulously, including camera moves, so as to be projected on-set against the actors. It’s an astonishing feat of filmmaking, a decision that curiously feels as naive as it does ambitious, and it lends The Laplace’s Demon a considerably unique character.
The film’s story centres on a group of probability researchers developing an algorithm to predict physical events, depicted in the story via a computer programme predicting how a dropped glass might break. They’re invited to an island mansion by a mysterious professor, but upon arrival their host is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the mansion’s central sitting room is dominated by a scale miniature of the building - a model in which chess pawns move about, controlled by a complex clockwork mechanism, mirroring precisely the movements of the visitors in the real house. It seems this professor has perfected a device for predicting human actions and decisions - and soon, the appearance of a queen on the “board” heralds the researchers' deaths, one by one. Can they survive this deterministic nightmare?
No, they cannot, generally speaking. As the miniature machine - linked, seemingly, with machinery in the mansion itself - begins to kill everyone, the film kicks from its overly-talky, exposition-laden opening into a series of fantastic visual setpieces. Though the actual mechanism of death is a disappointing reveal that robs the film of much of its unseen menace, the sequences leading up to the deaths are superb, playing upon notions of determinism in clever ways. The characters gaze at paintings, watch VHS tapes, flip through photographs, and read written reports that seem to predict their exact actions, and each episode is more fun than the last. If only the whole film reflected this kind of visual invention, instead of laboriously talking us through the concept of determinism for the fifteenth time, it’d be a far stronger film.
The Laplace’s Demon’s core conceit feels like a Twilight Zone riff on Agatha Christie manor murder mysteries, but filmed in a way that places it entirely in a time and space of its own. Its complex, clockwork metaphysical trap could be compared to a Saw entry, if it wasn’t shot in black and white with spare, expressionistic lighting; it’d feel like a Hammer film were it not populated with laptops and cellphones. The way in which its characters are offed one after another, presented as an inevitability, feels like a comment on the checklist-like structure of slasher movies; likewise, the obsessive, mathematically-focused story mirrors the process of the film’s production. There’s some strange alchemy going on behind the scenes here, and at its best, it's highly intellectually stimulating.
Viewed by itself, The Laplace’s Demon is a weird scientific/supernatural thriller with rough performances and filmmaking that ranges from amateurish to masterful. But with a modicum of background knowledge, it transcends its flaws, becoming a truly unique motion picture. It’s a testament to the importance of viewing art in context, of understanding where movies come from, of exercising more intellectual rigour than blindly watching whatever an algorithm predicts we want to watch next. Which, given the movie’s subject material, is oddly perfect.