Red Rooms

Red Rooms (Les chambres rouges) (2023)

Red Rooms (Les chambres rouges) first seen at the BFI London Film Festival 2023

She sees him through a screen. While in Red Rooms (Les chambres rouges), Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy) sits in a Montréal courtroom, with a prominent crucifix around her neck, watching a criminal trial – and a cause célèbre – unfold, the defendant Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) is made to sit throughout the two-month proceedings separated from the audience in the court by glass panels. For Chevalier is accused of the most heinous and unspeakable of crimes: abducting, sexually assaulting, torturing, murdering and dismembering three young teenage girls in a ‘red room’ for paying customers who hide behind their own screens. The children’s bodies, and two of the three snuff uploads, have since been recovered by the authorities, and although the face of the killer in the videos is obscured, an array of circumstantial clues, none singly conclusive but all collectively compelling, points to Chevalier, who sits impassively and has not made any public statements since his arrest.

In silence, Kelly-Anne listens and stares intently, evidently willing this man, dubbed the Demon of Rosemont by the press, to look back at her. Kelly-Anne is clearly keen to be attending – so keen that she abandons her luxury tower apartment every night and sleeps rough around the corner from the court building, so that she can join the public queue early enough in the morning to guarantee herself a seat. Indeed the child-like Clementine (Laurie Babin), a Chevalier obsessive from out of town who insists on the man’s innocence and victimhood despite mounting evidence, simply assumes that Kelly-Anne is another fangirl like herself – as will Kelly-Anne’s appalled employers, once her presence at the trial is exposed by television cameras, and as will Francine Beaulieu (Elisabeth Locas), the mother of the youngest victim, who regards the hybristophilia of female ‘groupies’ at the trial with horror and disgust.

Yet Kelly-Anne is hard to read, and easy to overlook or underestimate. A fashion model well used to the masking and cos-play involved in outward display, she is chameleonic – and as a professional (and successful) online gambler, she knows how to keep a poker face, and to set aside her emotions. She may invite the homeless Clementine to come stay with her for the duration of the trial, but she never really lets anyone in, instead maintaining an intense privacy and giving very little away. As such, Kelly-Anne is mysterious, and writer/director Pascal Plante is quick to make it clear that Kelly-Anne rather than Chevalier is the real focus of Red Rooms, as viewers are challenged to work out just what is motivating this elusive, evasive character’s increasingly odd actions, and on which side – between law and criminality – she is sitting. 

Kelly-Anne mostly keeps the world on the other side of a screen, be it through the elaborate home computer set-up where she works, plays and occasionally, effortlessly cyber-stalks, or through the windows of her residence that afford her an elevated, aloof view of the neon-lit city beyond and below. This is, of course, the world of screens and online anonymity where we are all now residing, to different degrees. In one sequence, Clementine calls into a live television debate, as a lone defender of Chevalier, and DP Vincent Biron films her from behind, facing Kelly-Anne’s massive TV screen from which the host (Richard Turcotte) looks out and pillories her live without ever seeing her as we do, so that the conversation seems all at once direct and distanced. This is not unlike various intradiegetic viewers’ simultaneous proximity to, and distance from, the murder videos (which shift in meaning depending upon who is viewing them and why), or indeed the multiple external viewership of Plante’s own chillingly equivocal film. Make no mistake, Red Rooms is a confronting film about different acts of extreme viewing, and the responsibilities (or otherwise) that come with them. For the most part it does not show its horrors, but it certainly flirts with doing so – and with our desire to see them – as it keeps promising (or is it threatening?) to share with us the videos that make such an impression on all who watch them, while making it clear that looking need not always be wrong, its ethics determined by both context and intent.

Where the surname of the accused is the French for ‘Knight’, Kelly-Anne’s custom-programmed voice AI is called ‘Guenièvre’, and her online pseudonym is ‘LadyOfShalott’, both named for prominent female figures in the mythology of the Arthurian knights. The fates of Chevalier and Kelly-Anne are closely interlinked – they belong, one might say, to the same story, or at least to the same cycle of stories, except that there is a decisive shift here to women’s perspectives – and to the female gaze. Yet the viewer will have to wait till the end – perhaps even beyond it – to determine the precise nature of the relationship between these two characters on either side of the screen, with maybe one, maybe both, involved in abominable online commerce and taboo personal fantasy. 

Shot in long takes and cool lighting to match Kelly-Anne’s inscrutable sangfroid, Red Rooms falls into an improbable seeming yet engaging and ultimately rewarding space somewhere between Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022), Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) and David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005). Plante’s film will keep you thinking about its carefully placed evidence – and your doubts – before leaving you to interrogate your own judgement for days afterwards. For as we cross-examine the motives, possibly mixed, of the enigmatic Kelly-Anne in her fanatical watching and rewatching, a fixed, accusatory eye is also being cast on all those, including Kelly-Anne, Clementine and – uncomfortably – us, who choose to consume True Crime and to elevate its perpetrators, for good or ill, from behind the supposed safety of a screen.

strap: Pascal Plante’s courtroom drama/cyberthriller cross-examines the identity and motives of a woman obsessively observing a horrific murder trial

© Anton Bitel