Imagine being an independent director who has spent years planning what you perceive as an imaginative take about individuals finding new life through alien bodies - and then seeing James Cameron unfurling a US$240 million blockbuster of more or less the same premise months before yours does.
That was what French director-screenwriter Gilles Marchand went through this time last year, as he witnessed Avatar changing the game entirely even as he readied his own film, Black Heaven, for release.
Not that the 47-year-old was that disheartened: in fact, he watched Avatar with great enthusiasm when the film came out in France. 'There have always been sci-fi films [from Hollywood] about people staying in bedrooms and sending their avatars onto the streets,' says Marchand, perhaps referring to the 2009 screen adaptation of the comic-book series Surrogates. 'It's very interesting to see [the characters'] relationships with their bodies. Particularly so in James Cameron's film, when he has a character who can't use his legs - and the first scene that really pulls me in is when he becomes an avatar and starts running.'
While Avatar looks at out-of-body existences as a facilitator of great deeds, Marchand presents second-life experiences as much more sinister. In Black Heaven, the lead character - a fresh-faced, upbeat young man called Gaspard (played by Gregoire Leprince-Leguet) leaves his sunny life in southern France (one shared with a loving girlfriend Marion, played by Pauline Etienne) to enter Black Hole, an online game in which his avatar becomes more and more mired. In this murderous game human players are increasingly absorbed into the virtual universe, where they are seduced by a femme fatale (played in the real world by Louise Bourgoin) and driven to suicide in real life.
Marchand says he was inspired to make Black Heaven when he saw a young man playing a video game amid the bustle of a crowded department store: on the screen, the man's game persona is trying to flee from a hotel room where the bloodied body of a young woman lies on the bed. The player's captivation by this ominous scenario, so far from his own ordinary existence, illustrated how addictive it is to take part in the extraordinary acts of a virtual realm - and how that could feed back into the real world.
'I'm not a big gamer but games are always intriguing to me,' says Marchand, who recalls his first experience with video games being on Ecco the Dolphin, an early 1990s game in which a player controls the eponymous creature as it travels the seas finding ways to defeat an evil force threatening to destroy its species and the world. 'I was impressed with how I could identify myself as a player with an animation on screen which is very simple. When I'm looking for a story I always look for contrasts - and death, of course, is the highest. In games, you can die again and again and come back reborn.'
In his career, Marchand has always traded in dark matters: he's a regular screenwriting partner for director Dominik Moll, with the pair having delivered noir pieces such as With a Friend Like Harry and the award-winning Lemming. Moll co-wrote Black Heaven's screenplay with Marchand, and the film is Marchand's second directorial effort after Who Killed Bambi? (2003), which revolves around a doctor and a nurse's investigation into mysterious disappearances in a hospital. 'Hopefully we're not imitating but renewing the genre,' says Marchand when asked about his penchant for noir-like plots.
Intense the new film might be, but Marchand says he doesn't feel 'negative' about virtual reality. 'I really like the separation of worlds,' he says. 'I'm not on any of those networking websites like Facebook - and I don't like my experiences to mix the online with the real.'
Judging from Black Heaven, maybe it's safe to agree with him.
Black Heaven opens on Thursday