Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Connie Nielsen, Chloë Sevigny, Gina Gershon
Having been wooed by Olivier Assayas’ recent output (Personal Shopper and particularly Clouds Of Sils Maria) its been gratifying to find the UK’s independent labels responding to a desire to work back through his catalogue. Earlier works have been made available on physical media thanks to the Criterion Collection and Arrow Academy.
Most recently, Arrow Academy have released a new edition of his 2002 techno-thriller Demonlover; a defiantly of-its-time tale of rival distribution companies, virtual reality and the burgeoning realms of the dark web.
In the film, conniving executive and possible corporate saboteur Diane (Connie Nielsen) is put in charge of striking a deal so that the Volf Corporation can monopolise the Hentai market in the west. To do so she arranges for her direct superior, Karen (Dominique Reymond), to be kidnapped and plays a key role in the operation herself. As Diane pushes further into the murky world of the internet and new technological possibilities, she discovers an underworld of torture porn and dark fantasies made flesh. It’s a strange, confused and heady combination from Assayas, one which could be dismissed as outdated but which, like Cronenberg’s Videodrome, survives its obsolete tech on the strength of its ideas.
A French filmmaker with global sensibilities, Assayas seems to be reaching out to not only zeitgeist technophobias from the real world, but conversations happening at the movies, too. While watching Demonlover I was struck by how much I was reading it as an art house response to the work of the Wachowskis, right down to the (stunt?) casting of Gina Gershon from Bound in a minor role.
The Matrix would have opened around the time the ball really started rolling on Demonlover. To me, Assayas seems to be commenting on not only the proliferation and fetishisation of virtual reality, but also how The Matrix and its contemporaries (Blade etc) made outfits we’d perhaps associate with S&M and BDSM sub-cultures seem like lifestyle accessories; popular fashion choices. Leatherwear… rubberwear… latex… The Matrix invited these things out of the closets and onto city streets (though few pulled it off in quite the same manner as Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss…).
Assayas got there first, its worth noting, dressing Maggie Cheung in a catsuit for Irma Vep (itself inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman Returns), but around the turn of the millennium there was a definite push toward making this aesthetic accessible, and Hollywood was a big part of that. The lead characters of Demonlover don’t go strutting around in gimp masks or skintight PVC (not to begin with, anyway), but these things echo around them, flashing up on their desktop computer screens, inhabiting video games and animated films. They’re part of the culture.
Going a step further, it felt to me as though Assayas was commenting on how, in a male dominated society, a businesswoman is considered practically synonymous with a dominatrix. The main characters of Demonlover are nearly all women; Diane and her ruthlessness; Karen, who can’t be underestimated; Elise (Chloë Sevigny), the assistant who knows too much and will fight for what she believes in; Elaine (Gershon), striking deals and representing corporate needs at a global level. These are powerful women who are almost always at one another’s throats, who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It’s murder in the boardroom and you’d better not kill the groove.
The men who are present are either utterly ineffectual or they’re grotesques forced to fall back on their brutish natures rather than engage in competition at the same level these women are working at. Assayas places his references to BDSM culture in the peripheries, daring us to make these connections, before pulling out his big guns.
It transpires that the hentai distribution company is a front for a secret internet society – the Hellfire Club – broadcasting the rape and torture of women to those who will pay to have their needs sated. Just another market to exploit. The MacGuffin being bounced between these companies has – from the off – been about bizarre or taboo sexual urges. The appearance of the Hellfire Club merely doubles down on this while also, it must be noted, providing a means for the world’s threatened men to re-assert themselves and subjugate women once more.
Assayas isn’t ‘pro’ any of this. In fact, Demonlover feels more like someone grimly prophecising. From this point in the picture there’s a more distinctly Lynchian/Cronenbergian vibe. Cronenberg had revisited virtual reality in 1999, too, with his under-appreciated gem eXistenZ (one of this writer’s favourite movies), but he pointedly (and sensibly) stripped it of these aesthetic connotations. His movie hasn’t dated. Meanwhile, certain desert scenes at the end of the Demonlover are practically interchangeable with those seen in final reels of Lynch’s Lost Highway. But Assayas doesn’t feel as though he’s ripping his contemporaries off. Rather, it feels playful, as though they’ve volleyed the ball over the net and he’s sprung up to power it back.
Demonlover feels like a comment on American films particularly, as the deeper into it you get – and the more it takes on the persona of a thriller – the more American it becomes. When the film begins (aboard a plane that strongly resembles, incidentally, the one used by Christopher Nolan’s heroes in 2010’s Inception), it is relatively pedestrian in its tone and palette. Assayas starts small and builds. In this opening stretch it remains defiantly/proudly French. But as the themes of espionage, betrayal and murder enter the narrative, the story also switches locales to New York and everyone starts speaking English. It is almost as though Assayas’ countrywomen have been ‘infected’ by the idea of Hollywood violence. America isn’t a nation; it’s a film pitch. It’s visitors are extras waiting to become stars.
Medium becomes porous. Early on, Diane and co. are shown (yes, dated-looking) samples of a new wave of motion-capture hentai in which the women/victims look like video game characters. By the end of the film Diane has been captured by the Hellfire Club. She wakes in just such an outfit. Her run to the end of the film feels like the motions of a video game character. Is it real, or has she been absorbed? Dispersed into a sea of ones and zeroes…?
Assayas’ Demonlover looks of its time, and that’s absolutely fine. But it stands up because, messy as it may be, there’s so much going on in here, some of it scarily prescient. These dog eat dog companies warring over content prefigure a world (and internet) divided into confused factions, arguing over the same materials, riddled with conspiracy theorists and trolls. All grimly relevant today.