The Laplace’s Demon begins in a manner not unlike the Creation of the Universe according to Gnosticism and the Lurianic Kabbalah: with a breaking of the vessels. A group of seven scientists are developing a computer programme to predict precisely how many shards will be created when a drinking glass is allowed to fall and shatter in a specific environment. They have made some progress with their work – enough to attract the attention of the mysterious Professor Cornelius – but their predictions still come with a considerable margin of error. So when we first meet them heading out in a small boat to Cornelius’ island home, they are as much metaphorically as literally at sea and, despite the nature of their research, have no idea what’s coming next. For Cornelius has been doing similar work, only with much greater success, and the seven, along with their boat’s captain, are about to find themselves trapped in their host’s elevated castle, and made guinea pigs in a deadly experiment that Cornelius has designed to prove the deterministic nature of the physical universe (as the French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace had theorised in 1814).
The second feature of Giordano Giulivi (Apollo 54), The Laplace’s Demon offers up a series of apparent temporal contradictions. Formally it has been shot in beautiful monochrome chiaroscuro with deep shadows, canted angles and ‘expressionist’ performances, and is modelled on an old castle horror or classic noir. The device which Cornelius has running in his abode – an elaborate clockwork concoction of cogs and coils – may seem entirely in keeping with the noir period, but it stands in analogue contrast to the digital laptop that one of Cornelius’ guests, Karlheinz (Silvano Bertolin), is seen obsessively checking. Falling somewhere between these two technological timeframes is the video tape – a redundant, flickering VHS – through which Cornelius converses with his guests, like Barry Convex from Videodrome. These conversations, pre-recorded yet uncannily in sync with his interlocutors’ real-time responses, offer a glimpse into the extraordinary accuracy of the professor’s predictions – an accuracy which collapses any normative notion of chronology. This is reflected, on a stylistic level, by the overt anachronism of Giulivi’s filmmaking choices.
Here past, present and future are all intimately connected in a continuous, overlapping chain of cause and effect, as the scientists’ every move is plotted, down to the minutest detail, by a formula offering a divine (or is it demonic?) perspective on the mechanisms of the universe. If The Laplace’s Demon is something like a slasher (or a locked-room mystery), whittling down its characters one by one, then their adversary is not some masked, heavy-breathing killer but rather destiny itself – and despite the availability of an axe, a club, and some of the world’s finest minds, the only real weapon that these prey have in their struggle to survive the night is free will – and that may well prove entirely illusory. Accordingly, Giulivi’s film plays out like Final Destination only with more rigorous philosophy, and with all the scientific trappings of Cube or Fermat’s Room. The film is as elegant as a game of chess (and uses chess as a constant metaphor). Equally elegant is its screenplay, co-written by Giulivi and his brother Duccio, which becomes in itself a part of the film as well as a self-referential metaphor for a constructed universe where every line and gesture has been written in advance with great precision, and where improvisation and deviations from the script, though certainly encouraged, are perhaps not really possible. In other words, the endgame here is, from the very start, just an inevitable part of an elaborate and sophisticated creation, with scientific determinism itself the source of a bleakly soul-shattering existential horror – as inevitable as death itself.
The Laplace’s Demon was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.