The Laplace’s Demon (2017)

The Laplace’s Demon first published by SciFiNow

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, 2007), The Laplace’s Demon offers up a series of apparent temporal contradictions. It has been shot in beautiful monochrome chiaroscuro with deep shadows, canted angles and ‘expressionist’ performances, and presents itself formally in the outdated modes of castle horror or classic noir. With its cogs, coils and clockwork, the elaborate device which Cornelius has running in his abode, and which models in miniature the goings-on in the castle’s interiors, may seem entirely in keeping with an older age, 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 (1983). 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 at least demonic) perspective on the mechanisms of the universe. The Laplace’s Demon is something like a slasher (or a locked-room mystery) as it whittles down its characters one by one. Their adversary, however, 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 sharpest minds, the only real weapon in this struggle to survive the night is free will, which may well prove entirely illusory. Accordingly, Giulivi’s film plays out like Final Destination (2000) only with more rigorous philosophy, and with all the scientific trappings of Cube (1997) or Fermat’s Room (2007). 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.

Strap: Giordano Giulivi has created a sci-fi game of death where every move is uncannily, if elegantly, predetermined.

© Anton Bitel