Spy in the house of porn

Demonlover’s fractured narrative conceals a visionary take on corporate amorality

Dismissed as incomprehensible upon its 2002 debut at Cannes, championed by
some of North America’s smartest critics as it trickled into theatres
throughout 2003 and finally opening in Edmonton this week at Metro Cinema,
Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover may be perplexing in a way that few films
are, but it is also utterly fascinating in a manner that’s equally
rare. Its detractors would call it a failed corporate espionage thriller that
falls apart before it’s even halfway over, but such a critique
isn’t just a grand failure of imagination that misses the whole damn
point, it’s a way for viewers to lazily excuse themselves from engaging
with an artist’s invitation to debate some of the most crucial (and
accessible) ideas in the modern world. That’s part of the trick here:
Demonlover is sophisticated, but in a way its ideas are actually rather
obvious. (This, I think, is a good thing.) Appropriately enough for a film
this unstable, Demonlover begins in the air, between destinations and, as we
soon realize, destinies. We’re on a plane, in a slightly exaggerated
luxurious first-class compartment. Most of the passengers are sleeping while
on the overhead television screens we see explosions and bodies in
flames—images of violence so acceptable that they have no effect on the
artificially serene atmosphere of the cabin. Real acts of violence are also
occurring on the plane: Diane (Connie Nielsen) is injecting Haldol into the
drinking water of Karen, a co-worker from the international acquisitions firm
she works for, doping her up to facilitate her abduction at the hands of
Diane’s secret cohorts when they touch down in Paris. This abduction
allows a rival company to gain access to information regarding a hot new
Japanese 3D porn project and paves the way for Diane to take over
Karen’s position while she’s recovering in hospital. After
establishing that our protagonist is a ruthless corporate spy, Assayas then
sets about familiarizing us with the industries that Diane moves within, both
openly and clandestinely. We see several scenes of businesspeople gazing at
screens displaying animated or live-action images of rape, torture, killing.
Oddly enough, even though Diane is apparently the most ruthless of the
film’s central characters, her ostensibly cool gaze is the only one
that registers the slightest hint of revulsion (a testament to
Nielsen’s remarkably complex, never quite opaque performance).
According to the reps from, some potential buyers who want to
dominate the international animé porn market are untroubled by the
ethical issues involved in their product’s content. Profitability alone
casts a veil of hipness and moral irrelevance over any product—even,
say, a website that allows users to design the on-camera torture of women
being held prisoner in a grimy cell somewhere in Russia. Demonlover’s
big subject is the labyrinth of control and distribution being built up
around morally sticky behaviour. What was once considered private sin becomes
public: the Internet allows public companies to control private aberrance,
and since the Net is decidedly interactive, those who enact their aberrant
fantasies through their home computer control in turn the actions of their
supplier. The circuitry of sex, violence, withdrawal and control is clearly
illustrated in the image of Chloë Sevigny (as Diane’s unhappy
assistant) playing a videogame naked in a hotel room. Assayas is digging
further into an unpleasant social territory David Cronenberg investigated 20
years ago in Videodrome (and several subsequent films, such as eXistenZ), and
as Diane begins to slide between illusion and reality, the film acquires
disquieting similarities to the dreamlike vocabulary of websites, videogames
and DVDs. But what Demonlover most reminded me of was not a film or a
videogame but the novels of one of my favourite contemporary authors, Don
DeLillo. Assayas’s characters, consumed with external forces and
rewards, have designed their lives to submit to powers they can’t and
don’t want to understand. Like the characters in DeLillo’s
terrific ’70s novels Players or Running Dog (which deals with the
international market for obscure erotic art and Hitler fetishism), they enter
a situation with a desire to dominate but exit it through complete and total
submission. And the chilling final image of Demonlover tells us that some
cages are more deliberate and collaborative than any individual can possibly
fathom. V Demonlover Written and directed by Olivier Assayas • Starring
Connie Nielsen, Charles Berling, Chloë Sevigny and Gina Gershon •
Zeidler Hall, The Citadel • Fri-Mon, Apr 30-May 3 (7pm) • Metro
Cinema • 425-9212

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