Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
(France, 2002; dir. Olivier Assayas; scr. Olivier Assayas; cin. Denis Lenoir; with Connie Nielsen, Charles Berling, Chloë Sevigny, Dominique Reymond, Gina Gershon, Jean-Baptiste Malartre, Jean-Pierre Gos, Edwin Gerard, Abi Sakamoto, Naoko Yamazaki)
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Principal photography on demonlover spanned from July to September 2001, which is surely too fast for Olivier Assayas & Co. to have fashioned it as an explicit reboot of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which bowed at Cannes just two months beforehand. I can't see how this speculative genealogy could hold, but watching the movie, I feel sure it does: a mysterious woman who may not be who she says, and may not even realize it, gets sucked into the vortices of image-making, corporate maneuvering, abrupt violence, and erotic thrall. After a midfilm blackout, most of the rules seem to change, with subservient characters attaining new power and established agents relinquishing it. Lesbian desire emerges as a narrative cipher, connoting as it did for Lynch, as it did for Bergman, as it did for Aronofsky, a sign that holy shit, anything could happen. For male auteurs, nothing conveys irreality and instability quite like women seducing women. The parallels don't stop there. As Joe Bob Briggs used to say, Car Crash Fu. Conspiracy Fu. Shadowy Tycoon Fu. Women's Faces Projected Over a Sinister Skyline Fu. If demonlover modeled itself as frankly on Mulholland as it often appears to, this would constitute a new world record in homage-cum-piracy. Of course, the speed and ferocity of cultural and aesthetic appropriation is partly what demonlover is about. Media as moneypool as misogynist endgame. Capitalism's insatiable hunger for imitation, intensification, and accelerationto which criminal malfeasance, human brutalization, and markets in smut are either tragic dénouements, expedient tactics, or completely constitutive elements.
Between the two, Mulholland Drive is the cleaner, arguably more coherent film, and ultimately the more character-driven. You leave it thinking about Betty, Rita, and Diane, whereas you leave demonlover thinking about money, and wondering if you should douse any cash you have on hand in disinfectant. Maybe your computer, too, and maybe yourself. You observe your co-workers more beadily, because three minutes into demonlover, a stern but innocuous-seeming business executive is already pumping chemicals into a superior's in-flight Evian to clear her own path toward promotion. This chicanery unfolds at Volf, a corporation based in Paris and engorged with wealth, which seeks to buy a Japanese company called TokyoAnime, specializing in a range of violent and/or salacious audiovisual entertainments about nubile ninjas, twins fighting devils with their "sex magic," and devils retaliating with all manner of priapic and tentacular mayhem. The company needs global investment to make the leap from 2-D cel animation to immersive 3-D spectacles: the footage they run as proof of cutting-edge product they also lament as already outmoded. Consumer desire, like 21st-century money, moves too fast for anyone to keep up. Meanwhile, the American owners of the rapidly-expanding manga website demonlover.com, represented at the negotiating table by the gleefully unprincipled Gina Gershon ("We also own mangasex.com, sexmanga, japanporno.com, sexslavelaracroft.com..."), want to partner with Volf in acquiring TokyoAnime so they can jointly amass a 75% world market share and eliminate their shared rival, MangaTronics. Transactions seem to run smoothly, if you discount some fleeting worries about TokyoAnime's links to child pornography, and demonlover's rumored ties to interactive torture sites, and everyone's covert profiteering from even seamier enterprises than those they openly hawk. Nobody from MangaTronics is present for this deal-making, which surely indicates that somebody from MangaTronics secretly is. How else to explain why the women at the negotiating table keep winding up in the trunks of cars, or returning to hotel rooms to find their clothes and purses lacerated? And that's just the start.
demonlover gets capitalist amorality and hyperspeed in a way few films have. It's a Videodrome for an economic age even Videodrome couldn't imagine, a sort of porn-racket Bourne Trilogy packed into one film, with no guarantee that anyone is fighting the good fight. At the same time, in a surely self-conscious mirroring of its own story, demonlover was so cutting-edge in 2002 that it seemed behind. Assayas fills the screen with swipestreams of lurid thumbnails, with password-protected sites under password-protected sites, and you wonder if the film should logically be a web series, a video game, or some kind of interface. At a formal level, albeit with all the portentous connotations of its content, demonlover smashes the frame of cinema while still implying that cinema itself is a constraint. The movie bowed about three seconds before everybody had a cellphone, and a few years before tablets. The late, rather high-handed, but viciously affecting image of a major character peering into the camera from inside the monitor of a CPU-based computer looks about as au courant as the villainous complexes in the Connery Bonds.
Still, no matter how dated demonlover might seem, even self-reflective on its inevitable archaism, this is one sizzling third-rail of a film, prophetic in many ways. Assayas finds graphic, sonic, and linguistic channels for conveying multinational capitalism, that infamously un-representable world order that holds us all in its grip. Weaving among French, English, and Japanese, assembling an international and expertly chosen cast, the film uses music, costumes, props, hairstyling, and verbal idioms to suggest a world where every "first-world" culture fetishizes every other one, even as they merge into a deracinating continuum based on profit, commodity logic, and shared inattention to anything like a developing world. We get nowhere near an op-center of wrongdoing, or strategizing, or wealth, and nowhere near a sense of anything being overturned. In the argot of this year in movies, demonlover is a Blackhat with less preening and romance, and more immanent critique. It's an Ex Machina that's actually happening, with humans being turned or turning themselves into robots, minus the pretense of far-away islands and cyborg engineering. As the demonlover decade wore on, both fiction films and documentaries found ever-greater occasions to probe the workings of global-market capitalism and its lethal, contaminating claims even on self-fashioned non-participants or conscientious objectors. Few of those movies had the teeth that demonlover does, addressing capital coevally as system and as drive, at the levels of actuality and fantasy, which might be the only fair way. I also thought a lot about this movie when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, since Assayas conceptualizes links among torture, desire, media, and global power more suggestively than most other filmmakers, and throws acid on convenient myths of the Lone Bad Apple.
No surprise, I guess, that the movie wasn't better-liked. The Cannes reviews in 2002 were toxic, the jury (headed, incidentally, by David Lynch) sent it home with nothing, and it tended to get double-billed in most Croisette journalism with Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, as though a linking tendency toward sexual and violent provocation overrode everything that manifestly differs between these films and makers. Critical reception was warmer in the States when demonlover arrived for its tiny commercial release here in 2003, but you rarely hear it mentioned anymore. Steven Shaviro's Post-Cinematic Affect, a great book for thinking through some of what demonlover is about (indeed, some of what the movie explicitly heralds), elects instead for a chapter on Assayas's much thinner and semi-tedious Boarding Gate. No Blu-ray has ever emerged, in France or in the US. "You didn't see anything. No one sees anything. Ever," warns Connie Nielsen's corporate Valkyrie, at a moment when such insistence means a great many things, depending on what you're listening for. demonlover, full of flagrant and confronting spectacle, is even more valuable for what it indicates tangentially and invisibly about our world. The movie itself has become weirdly hard to see, and yet, woe is us, we're seeing it around us all the time.