Sex, Murder, and Virtual Reality
A critique of Complices.
By now, you’ve probably heard of Chatroulette. If you haven’t, it’s a six-month-old Internet sensation—a website started by a seventeen-year-old Moscow high-school student that pairs random strangers from around the world via video chat. For this film review, I thought it appropriate to visit the infamous webcam hub myself. Out of ten people, nine of them were young, shirtless men staring vacantly into the computer screen, and four of them were vigorously masturbating. Needless to say, the Internet creates a social arena in which people make first-time connections in a way that was never possible fifteen years ago. Complices (Accomplices) is an important look into what behaviors cyber activity activates in modern society.
Frédéric Mermoud’s sexual thriller Accomplices deals directly with the fact that our age derives emotional and sexual pleasure from a virtual domain, i.e. the Internet. Accomplices begins in a cyber café, where two French teens, Vincent (Cyril Descours) and Rebecca (Nina Meurisse), meet. Vincent, an attractive male prostitute, finds his clients in chat rooms. By luring rich, older men into hotel affairs, he is able to sustain a decent living, although the lifestyle is initially off-putting to his girlfriend, Rebecca, who gradually learns to accept and even participate in Vincent’s coquettish and dicey profession.
Walter Benjamin writes, “death is the sanction of everything the story-teller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” Indeed, Mermoud tangles Accomplices with death, paralleling the love story of Vincent and Rebecca with a gruesome murder case. In this murder mystery, two 40-something detectives, Herve and Carine (Gilbert Melki and Emmanuelle Devos), attempt to solve a homicide involving the two teens. From the behavior of the detectives, we see an important dichotomy between the web-savvy, hyper-sexualized youth and the impotence of the adults.
The sexual lives of the teens are rapacious to the point of prostitution. The adults are childless, passive aggressive, and romantically withholding. Although the sexual tension is thick, neither Herve nor Carine can seem to speak to the other directly about being alone. They play aggressive games of ping-pong after work, violently waffling the ball back and forth as if the loser will be to blame for the other’s loneliness. Ping-pong is physical, confrontational, personal. In other words, it’s the old way of doing things. In Chatroulette or Twitter or Facebook, one can simply delete those one doesn’t like. In a non-cyber reality, people actually have to deal with their shortcomings (and the shortcomings of other human beings).
The Internet makes teens prodigal in the sense that they live half their lives in a distant, virtual space—a space where the traditional familial hierarchy is uprooted. Adults are seen as invaders rather than protectors. Youth discover that their parents aren’t, in fact, omniscient. The marriages in Accomplices (even stable, bourgeois marriages) curdle with deceit, adultery, and discontent. Husbands sleep on couches. The film begs the question—can two people in the age of virtual reality really survive together monogamously? The Internet makes it so easy to delete people from our lives. For the older generation, this wasn’t so simple. Perhaps this is why the clients vie so embarrassingly and unsuccessfully for Vincent’s non-sexual affection. Since the relationships Vincent has with his “lovers” are instigated virtually, his behavior toward them is mandated by rules from the virtual world, not the physical one. In essence, he treats those closest to him as subhuman. Perhaps this is why the search for the murderer in Accomplices repeatedly ends at the doorstep of the victim’s closest friends. We live in a time of webcams and cell phones, but virtual proximity causes us to act by a different ethical code.
So what are we to do with the title Accomplices? The film, ostensibly a murder mystery, cares most about those who enabled the murder, not the one who actually performed it. In other words, it is not an implication of the youth themselves, but a portrait of modern society in which virtual behavior patterns are beginning to transgress virtual boundaries. While the older generation fears (and perhaps envies) this lack of restraint, the teen generation is perhaps too deep inside the virtual culture to even think about questioning its legitimacy.
Accomplices is not the fringe of modern society; it’s the fabric. It would be prudent to think twice about the ways that we devise and sell our identities online…before we actually turn into them.
J.M. Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.