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“I’m calculating. I have no scruples. It’s what excites you… and what scares you. But you have no idea. You don’t know me.” —Connie Nielsen, Demonlover
If Olivier Assayas’ 2002 thriller Demonlover were a person, most of us would be stuck watching it from behind a velvet rope as it strolls into the hippest nightclub in town, and we wouldn’t question the injustice of that, either. Much like Assayas’ brilliant 1996 film Irma Vep—the fourth movie I chose to write about for this column—it has elements that are unimpeachably cool—or, if you’re feeling uncharitable, cool for their own sake. Demonlover’s cast includes the elegant, multilingual Connie Nielsen (who at one point dons a latex getup that recalls Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep) and prototypical “It” girl Chloë Sevigny. The ambient guitar score comes from avant-rock legend Sonic Youth. The action revolves around anime, and the designer fashions are enough to make Patrick Bateman break out in a cold sweat. If you aren’t too hung up in the convolutions of Assayas’ script—and that’s a big “if”—Demonlover is a seductive purely as an art object, and vastly more difficult to digest as anything else.
Yet the surfaces mean something. It’s common for critics to gripe about movies that don’t get “under the surface,” meaning that they’re shallow or superficial. But Demonlover—and Assayas’ even more flawed (yet also seductive) Boarding Gate five years later—is transfixed by the gloss of corporate boardrooms and luxury hotel suites, and the beautiful, duplicitous creatures who pass through them. All of them are products of a business culture that demands moral flexibility and encourages no loyalty, which in thriller terms means that no one is as they seem—and more than that, they may be completely unknowable in the end. Watching Demonlover can be immensely frustrating for plot-related reasons, but also because trying to understand its characters can be like grasping sand as it slips through your fingers.
For a movie hung up on internationalism, Assayas could not have found a more ideal lead actress than Nielsen, a Danish-born actress who lived in France and Italy before settling down in the United States, and can speak eight languages. (She’s like the Carré Otis character in Wild Orchid, but for real!) Nielsen is also an ice queen worthy of Alfred Hitchcock or Paul Verhoeven, and she plays Diane de Monx with a steely self-assurance, even when under extreme duress. Diane works for the Volf Corporation, a Paris-based multinational, as the boss’ personal assistant, but she has designs on a more powerful position at the company. To that end, she targets her superior, Karen (Dominique Reymond), during a ride on the corporate jet by slipping off to the bathroom and spiking a container of Evian water. A smooth operator:
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Diane’s shortcut up the ladder pays off, and she suddenly leaps into a power position as Volf goes after a controlling position in TokyoAnimé, a studio that dominates adult-oriented anime. She joins forces with an American company called Demonlover, represented by Elaine, a pot-smoking, boot-wearing executive that Gina Gershon plays to the vampy Showgirls hilt. (Executives rarely walk around in form-fitting “I [Heart] Gossip” T-shirts, but she’s a free spirit.) At least two things threaten to scotch the deal: A rival company named Mangatronics is using corporate espionage to sabotage Volf, with Diane operating as a double agent, and Demonlover secretly acts as a front for an underground website called the Hellfire Club, where users can pay for interactive torture sessions with unwilling participants. Working seemingly all sides is Hervé (Charles Berling), a Volf executive with designs on Diane, and Karen’s assistant Elise (Sevigny), who doesn’t mask her resentment toward Diane, but does a fine job of masking her own dark motives.
At the halfway point exactly, Demonlover takes a turn for the inexplicable and doesn’t look back. (And here’s where I’ll warn the spoiler-averse to skip two paragraphs ahead.) On assignment for Mangatronics, Diane breaks into Elaine’s hotel room to bug the telephones and light fixtures, gets caught in the act, and winds up in a brawl with Elaine that ends with Diane taking a blow to the head. When she regains consciousness, Diane is still in Elaine’s room, which has been cleaned up, and we don’t know why she’s been left untouched, or what her adversaries might have planned for her. That sounds in principle like an intriguing twist, and it is in the sense that we see Diane, this woman who’s exerted total control over her diabolical affairs for half the movie, suddenly put in a position of intense uncertainty and vulnerability. And our feelings about her change on a dime: She’s no longer the ice queen looking to sabotage the Volf/Demonlover/TokyoAnimé deal, she’s the victim of plotters who are likely more vicious.
Yet at the same time, it’s hard to know what the hell is going on from that point forward. What I wrote about Boarding Gate applies here, too: Demonlover is “a French cineaste’s idea of what a slick, jet-setting contemporary suspense film might look like, not a satisfying execution of same.” My guess is that Demonlover was haphazardly back-engineered to accommodate an ironic twist ending that finds Diane forced into the Hellfire Club and tortured for the pleasure of some suburban teenager with daddy’s credit card. It’s one of those endings that you can see coming a mile away, and yet it makes absolutely no sense in execution. Having a high-powered executive reduced to a virtual-world sex slave is a lurid, silly development; then again, there’s an intended silliness to Demonlover, exemplified by this meeting where members of Volf and TokyoAnimé go over the legal problems presented by 3-D pornographic anime.
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The scene above distills a lot of what Demonlover seeks to express: The international nature of modern capitalism, where people communicate (or mis-communicate) in different languages, but with a common, venal pursuit of profitability at all costs. Given all the scheming that presaged this meeting, it’s a joke that this collected of corporate sophisticates gathers to discuss the burgeoning hentai market. And the conversation, too, has no concern with the field’s morality: No matter how much tentacle porn and demon rape assaults their senses, Volf executives go about their business like they’re acquiring any old widget. Their only worry lies in petty legalities, like the artists potentially using underage models as inspiration for the pubic-hair-free characters. Otherwise, they couldn’t care less.
It’s never a good idea to have your character speak in thesis statements, but Diane’s line about having no scruples and being unknowable gets at Demonlover’s elusive, mysterious pleasures. Though we know her as one of a breed of impeccably dressed schemers, Diane improbably holds our sympathies, perhaps because she loses power, and it’s easier to sympathize with the powerless. The line also reflects the film’s beguilingly shifty universe, where everyone operates without morals, allegiances, or even recognizable humanity, each a reflection of capitalism at its most heartless and venal. It’s a frustrating, flawed, and at times incomprehensible film, but Demonlover is compelling and forward-thinking, and as ever with Assayas, it feels like the epitome of cool.
September 30: Death Wish 3
October 14: Kung Fu Hustle
October 28: House (Hausu)