Note: This was written for CriterionCast.com where it was posted on October 26, 2010
demonlover (2002, Assayas)
Demonlover, a mind-bending techno-thriller written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is a mixed ride. It has attained a cult status, polarized viewers, bares resemblance to other cult films such as Videodrome and sports an ambient and jarring score by Sonic Youth. As if that were not enough, Assayas initiates intensely ambitious thematic and narrative goals. All of these elements listed make for an overloaded film that is original yet inconsistent.
The plot revolves entirely around The Volf Corporation’s attempts to broker a deal. They are trying to acquire the rights of a Japanese animation studio, mainly for their 3D hentai. At the same time, they are trying to negotiate a deal with American pornography site demonlover.com, represented by Elaine (Gina Gershon). The woman who is in charge of brokering both deals for the corporation is Karen (Dominique Reymond) who is poisoned by co-worker Diane (Connie Nielsen) in the opening scene. Diane then takes over the deal as well as working with Karen’s business partner Herve (Charles Berling) and assistant Elise (Chloe Sevigny). It turns out that demonlover.com is a front for an exclusive and interactive sadomasochistic torture website called The Hellfire Club, which features unwilling participants. From there, the narrative gradually collapses, hurtling us into the unreliable subconscious of the characters.
Demonlover tries to tackle many issues at once. The first is clearly business culture and the subsequent loss of identity within it. Shooting in cold blue tones, Assayas portrays the business world as a place that only values someone for what they can accomplish, and devalues someone the moment they become expendable. The film looks at how robotic the determination within business can make a person, and the fragility of any eventual success. The more successful elements of the convoluted second half depict the easily replaceable mindset of business and the ever shifting identities within.
The other primary interest of Assayas is the desensitization of violence in relation to our culture and overexposed viewers. The characters are either directly or indirectly exposed to sex and/or violence throughout. Their reactions are dehumanized and shrouded by the business aspect of their goals. One scene that particularly illustrates this is when Diane and representatives of the anime studio discuss the potential legal issues if their product is labeled “child pornography”. They are concerned about what that could financially do to the company; not the moral implications behind the potential claim. Having female characters also adds a layer of discomfort since the emotionless reactions to violence against women are coming from women themselves. The viewer is asked to examine their own reaction to the sexual violence shown, especially in contrast to the non-reactions of the characters. Typically, filmmakers’ attempts to explore the relationship between violence and the viewer become contradictory. Examinations of violence force the filmmaker to make their point with, well, violence. Assayas manages to strike a nice balance here with some very strong content without simultaneously harboring the indulgent fascination often found. The scene with Diane looking at the Hellfire Club site is like an assault on the viewer in large part to the way Sonic Youth’s score is incorporated with the imagery. Living in the age of easy access to anything through the internet makes most of this material only more relevant as time passes. The examination of desensitization provides the most successful commentary in demonlover.
The execution of the narrative is where the film becomes problematic. Assayas is trying to throw us off and purposely deconstructs the first half of the film as it moves into the second. By breaking off from traditional narrative techniques and alienating the audience, Assayas is accomplishing what he set out to do with the film. It is up to the audience to decide what they can get from the director’s choice and how it affects their viewing experience. I found it to be a long-winded attempt at intentionally going against the norm for its own sake. At its most confusing, demonlover turns basic characterization on its head and has plot developments happening out of a definitive context. Diane goes from being a ruthless double-crossing businesswoman (who happens to be a spy) to a victim ironically surrounded by others with ulterior motives. This is the only development within the second half that truly works. It emphasizes the loss of identity and temporary nature of business.
The primary reason the film’s final half cannot sustain itself through the narrative breakdown is that it simply stops being engaging. The first half is very plot-driven; every piece of dialogue is about the attempts to close either the deal with the Japanese animation studio or demonlover.com. Characters and their dynamics are established only through the plot-driven dialogue. Once all the set-up is thrown out the window, the film has no method of engaging the audience. His trip into the subconscious is simply not gripping. The second half could have brought the film to the next level, using the set-up to further explore the plot, characters and themes in an unconventional way. Instead, it falls flat. This proud display of playing with structure seems ridiculous when the predictable ending is brought into play. Realizing where Assayas is taking this story only makes getting there tiresome and his methods go from being an unpredictable breakdown of the Hollywood narrative to being a predictable journey to an ending that ironically feels like something a Hollywood film would do.
Although demonlover is not the success it wants to be, it certainly stuck with me. It made me think extensively about the issues Assayas was exploring. Connie Nielsen gives one of the more underrated performances in recent memory and is a highlight. The direction it goes in is all the more frustrating because of how well it builds up its first half. Love it or hate it, Olivier Assayas goes for broke with a film that is somehow both worthwhile and tiresome.