After playing around with a real time conceit for their previous film Theo and Hugo, directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau have returned with another intimate drama set over the course of one turbulent evening. Making its UK debut in BFI London Film Festival’s Dare section, Don’t Look Down (Haut perchés) is, in many ways, the inverse of their previous effort. There, a spontaneous hook up at a sex club led to a much deeper connection between the titular pair, whereas here, the characters form a plutonic bond due to their connection to a man who broke their hearts – a drama about break up and closure to follow their tale of unlikely romance.
Set entirely within the confines of a chic Parisian apartment, the film follows five people (four men and one woman) who only met a few hours previously. The man who abused their emotions in some way is locked in an adjacent room, and they all take it in turns to go in and have some alone time – all under the agreement that they don’t listen to or ask what happens behind the closed door. Over the course of the evening, they all eventually realise that this man (who remains unnamed and undepicted on screen) was something of a chameleon, manipulating their emotions by projecting what they wanted from a partner. As they share memories and fantasies, they also come to realise that there are very few similarities that tie them together.
It’s never explicitly stated what is happening to the former lover in the locked room, with sounds of torture one minute, before bursts of laughter the next. But despite this lack of clarity, the closest a breakup drama can come to a Schrodinger’s Cat scenario, it often seems like the directors are paying tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, not least due to the characters all trying to maintain a level of normalcy by hosting a dinner party, while the “perfect crime” appears to be occurring in the locked room next door. Of course, Ducastel and Martineau seem largely indifferent to what is actually happening behind the door; it’s something of a McGuffin (another Hitchcockian narrative tactic!) to trigger the reflective conversations, and discussions on how sexual fantasy has influenced their reality.
Like with Theo and Hugo, discussions on the characters’ place within gay culture are triggered from less meaningful conversations. Analysis on the perfect way to slice pizza sits next to sombre chats about the power dynamics of sexual fantasies, the very differing sexual relationships the characters had with the unnamed man, and whether sex is an integral aspect to forging a deeper connection with somebody. An explicitly genre-inflected premise, five strangers confined in an apartment on the basis of getting revenge on the same man, very quickly becomes something more powerful – the mystery behind closed doors rendered irrelevant, a burden detrimental to the emotional obstacles the characters are facing on the road to closure.
Don’t Look Down (Haut perchés) is far less explicit than we’ve come to expect from a Ducastel/Martineau film, but no less impactful. It’s a revenge movie stripped of the bloody comeuppance, the catharsis feeling all the more impressive due to how little we’ve experienced of these characters’ relationships with the man who scorned them.