Monday, 7 February 2011

Demonlover (2002) Olivier Assayas







Diane wants to get to the top. She wants power and she wants control and to get both she has to work her way up the levels.

She is heading the transnational negotiations team of the Volf Corporation, bidding for the rights to Japanese animated pornography, which is now moving into the computer generated and 3D realms.

The aim is to share the rights with American company Demonlover. It soon becomes clear that she is a spy, or an agent provocateur, for rival Mangatronics. However, as shadowy as this organisation is, the extent of the murky depths of plot and counter-plot soon engulfs her, with control over and dissemination of popular new website Hellfire Club (a real life, real time, 'interactive torture site') at the core of the abyss.

Diane thinks she has the upper hand over boss Karen and colleagues Elise and Herve, but even in the opening scene, where she seeks to temporarily dispose of her superior, we are shown that she is:











Demonlover cleverly dangles Diane's conspiracy (and its potential success or discovery) in front of us, distracting us until the appointed time from the conspiracies going on in the background.

Hints and nudges like the one above are the kind that make us gasp with recognition in retrospect. In the meantime we are left eager to catch up a little with a film that is always a step ahead,


*    *    *

The people in Demonlover are once removed even from amorality, with control and fear, and the minor irritations of law the only impediments to the perfect marriage of desiring and receiving.

Things need to be kept secret but there is no subterfuge or artifice in the naked glee of taking and having control:

Elise

The people of Demonlover are not merely desensitised to images of violence and sex - oblivious/indifferent to the explosions detonating on an aeroplane's in-flight monitors - but to (created) images in and of themselves. The opening scene on the aeroplane is vacuum-packed, silent and airless as the tub of water itself. An intellectual slumber has fallen over the weary passengers, people half-awake and half-aware. In their minds the image has lost all implication of the real in which it is founded.

The act of projection breaks it free. If it is so easy for real to become fiction, and for fiction, by extension, to cease to hold profound meaning then these people, glowing slickly in the beautiful and saturated plastic light of Assayas' camera, can be damaged, discarded and digitised at will.

When Diane is first shown images of women tied up and beaten for the delectation of subscribers she appears to be repulsed. However, she appears repulsed because that is what we expect of her. In truth, we realise, when she accesses the site herself, that she is fixated by it. The sharp blade of desire can so easily draw blood. Violence and sex are brought together over and over again in the film: rape, as well as acts, in their violating nature, readily compared to rape (druggings, muggings, burglaries).


The film looks and feels sleek and messy at the same time, with compositions that are smooth and simple and those that appear twisted with disjointed lines and perspectives. It is a combination consonant with the film's play with surface and depth, image and reality.


*    *    *

Emotional distance allows us to abuse. We don't understand the characters, they don't understand each other, they don't understand themselves:

"What did you see?"

"The way you operated.  I admire you."

"You haven’t seen anything.  No one ever sees anything.  Never.  they watch… but they don’t understand."

They are to be moved and manoeuvred, open to transaction and trade like the myriad credit cards we see passed from hand to hand, used for what they can give and then given back, weaker.


Diane and everyone else is like a character in a game. No sooner has an 'adult' website carrying the name Lara Croft Sex Slave been brought into the mix than Diane is clambering up balconies to bug a competitor's apartment. As in games though, one slip and you can end up at the bottom. Only, when you are in a cold and rough basement, at the mercy of faceless assailants and a kid with his Dad's wealth on tap, 'Game Over' is not always followed by 'Start Again'.

As the film progresses Diane is placed behind car windows, office partitions, plates of glass or plastic (not so much on the screen, but helpless beyond it). In a breathtaking instant she is plunged out of sight in an elevator; exhibited and walled off for all to see and then condemned. Like the film as a whole, it is an exhilarating and stomach-churning moment.

*   *   *

A multitude of reviewers, who are typically reluctant to deal with text before subtext or story before notion. will have you know that Demonlover is just some clich├ęd piffle about losing ourselves and our moral base to a capitalist. corporate global machine (in Demonlover no-one seems to be speaking their first language), workers frenetically manipulated by the hands of a Moloch machine.


The more you boil Demonlover's delicious concoction down, the more you are left with the common granules of a thousand inferior films.

It's not, as some would argue, another neo noir off the conveyor belt, another cyber thriller or the next 'psycho-sexual' cult offering. It is a fascinating film in numerous ways, and a thing all its own.*

Demonlover's brilliance is that it dramatises its ideas, fleshing out all of its concepts. It is, above all, a bewildering and thrilling mystery, a proper story (I held back on the plot's twists because the tale's course is the essence of the film) that takes its characters to interesting places emotionally and physically. It is not to be dismissed as wild or uncontrolled purely because it is as bold, energetic and idiosyncratic as fiction should be. It is inventive and intelligent. It allows us to be transported. It lets us think rather than, in the manner of the tightly woven modern way, letting us have the (dubious) honour of seeing it and its maker think.

Demonlover is not interested in retreading old paths or raising empty essayistic hypotheticals. Demonlover can go further down because its rope is wrapped around a robust, three-dimensional story with vivid characters on the surface.

By giving us a full-bore, grotesque vision of our desires taken to the extreme it provokes disgust at the entire edifice of a life and media that moulds the human into an object. Is this what you want? Then have it.

Awesome.


* I think we are too quick to say that a film is just like another or that a remake is pointless. Isn't it that every film is unique and cannot be otherwise?

4 comments:

  1. This is a hell of a post, Stephen, and a remarkable job grappling with the complexity of what may well be Assayas' masterpiece to date. It's been a couple of years since I've seen it, so I fear it's not quite fresh enough in my head to completely come to terms with the wealth of ideas you've offered here, but I will surely be bookmarking this page for future reference.

    "The film looks and feels sleek and messy at the same time, with compositions that are smooth and simple and those that appear twisted with disjointed lines and perspectives. It is a combination consonant with the film's play with surface and depth, image and reality."

    Aside from individual moments and images that have lingered in my brain since I saw it, this sense of thematic/aesthetic adherence that you describe so well above is one of the qualities that I remember striking me the most. I'm really anxious to see it again. Great job as usual, Stephen.

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  2. Thanks very much Drew.

    I hope if you do come back that you'll let me know if it changed since your last viewing (the film and this piece(!))

    In terms of its energy and tone, DEMONLOVER felt to me a little like FEMME FATALE, which was made in the same year.

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  3. "Demonlover's brilliance is that it dramatises its ideas, fleshing out all of its concepts. It is, above all, a bewildering and thrilling mystery, a proper story (I held back on the plot's twists because the tale's course is the essence of the film) that takes its characters to interesting places emotionally and physically. It is not to be dismissed as wild or uncontrolled purely because it is as bold, energetic and idiosyncratic as fiction should be. It is inventive and intelligent. It allows us to be transported. It lets us think rather than, in the manner of the tightly woven modern way, letting us have the (dubious) honour of seeing it and its maker think..."

    Superlative review in every sense and a great and appreciative follow up comment by Drew. I am a very big fan of this director, and while I favor SUMMER HOURS and CARLOS, I can't contest the stellar regard, for the reasons expressed in this excerpt and elsewhere. Again you raise teh bar for creativity, passing up the usual reviewing techniques for a far more penetrating dissection.

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  4. Many thanks Sam.

    I'm afraid I haven't seen SUMMER HOURS or CARLOS yet but, after enjoying DEMONLOVER, BOARDING GATE and, to a lesser extent, IRMA VEP I'm eager to see some more of Assayas' films.

    Thanks again.

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