By Chris Hyde

October 7, 2003

Wouldn't you like Connie to be your director?

demonlover, Olivier Assayas' heady new thriller, is a challenging swirl of images, music, text and subtext that all adds up to one of the smartest and most powerful films of the year.

Not at all well known in the United States, Assayas has been making films in France for over twenty years. The son of a screenwriter from the pre-New Wave era, the director seems to have known early on in his life that he wanted to make movies for a living. While he at first learned other crafts such as painting and drawing at the prestigious l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he later moved on to work as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema. He also then started writing screenplays and directing films in the late 1970s. Since that point, he has been behind the camera on some 19 movies, the last two of which were nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes film festival. Perhaps the highest-profile film of Assayas' to garner some recognition domestically was the 1996 Irma Vep, a meta-film about movie making which starred the incomparable Maggie Cheung and had a limited run on the art house circuit here in North America.

As a filmmaker, Assayas quite often likes to explore themes that expose the contradictions inherent in human society. With demonlover he continues this work, using the film to uncover a multiplicity of conflicts that exist in the proverbial seamy underbelly of the modern world. Occupied in the main with the power of images and the nature of reality, in certain ways this present film tackles ideas that sometimes even manage to crop up in mainstream Hollywood films these days. A prime example is the Matrix movies of the Wachowski brothers, though in their case it's all too easy to imagine that the name- dropping use of Baudrillard here is merely on a par with their brief homage to William F. Claxton's Night of the Lepus. But whereas Olivier Assayas is a bit of a blathering French intellectual himself, one actually gets the sense that his use of semiotics truly comes via a real digestion of the works of Barthes, Derrida and their kin.

Nominally, demonlover is the story of Diane (Connie Nielsen, an actress most recognizable here for her appearance as Lucilla in the Oscar-winning sword and sandals epic Gladiator) a woman who appears to work for a multinational known as VolfGroup. The company is in the process of purchasing a Japanese animation company called TokyoAnime, whose spectacular and pornographic computer technology is coveted greatly. But there are other companies battling for the exclusive Internet rights to the images produced by this Asian concern -- and as these outfits (Magnatronics and demonlover) rapaciously vie for position in the gleaming world of global corporate finance there are all sorts of professional machinations that ensue.

It turns out, in fact, that Diane is actually a corporate spy for one of these other companies. But additionally, things are far more insidious within VolfGroup than it initially appears; her coworkers Herve (played in excellent fashion by Charles Berling) and Elise (Chloe Sevigny, in yet another interesting choice of role) are also jockeying for position within the corporate chain of command. Diane also stumbles on the online work of a mysterious interactive website known as The Hellfire Club that specializes in brutal and obscene material. Just where exactly this violently sadomasochistic group operates from is unclear -- it may be that the American group spearheaded by Elaine (Showgirls alum Gina Gershon) has something to do with it, or perhaps there is some other explanation lurking in the background.

As a narrative, the text of demonlover is not at all straightforward. Assayas plays with convention throughout the film, and it can often be difficult to follow the threads that make up what passes for a story line. Viewers considering whether or not to see this movie might put themselves to the Mulholland Drive test first; if the disjointed means of storytelling that characterized that David Lynch project did little more than make your head hurt, then it's likely that this may not be the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you're more willing to go with the flow and can accept the frequent incomprehensibility of this sort of experimental style, then there's sure to be plenty to keep you captivated. For Assayas truly has much to say here, and the outer surface shell of his offbeat thriller is only the merest indication of what looms below in the neon-colored depths of this fractured frisson of pictures and sound. Immaculate international corporations toy with the most base human desires in their relentless pursuit of profits; rootless human beings float untethered by ties to nation or self; images and sounds pile atop one another in a global mirrored funhouse whose implications are all too often ignored by those who absorb the visual and aural inputs on a daily basis.

Assayas' directorial approach with demonlover is both provocative and fascinating, yet much of the film's strength is derived from the brilliant performances of the cast. The four principal members mentioned above all seem to be operating at their peak skill level, adding subtle nuances to the filmmaker's artistic vision. All give exceptional turns that anchor the project's more esoteric flights of fancy, and Nielsen is in especially fine form here. While the storytelling certainly has its moments of heavy-handed pretension (I found the film's dénouement to be particularly hamfisted), in the main the narrative is handled with a delicate sense of craft that the excellent dramatic work only makes more potent. Also of note is the stunning sensual assault of vision and sound that form the backdrop to the movie's proceedings: the white noise soundtrack by New York art-rockers Sonic Youth and the incredible cinematography of Denis Lenoir combine to help create an unsettling atmosphere in which the movie's actions play out.

Undoubtedly, demonlover is not the sort of movie that is destined to capture the attention of the megaplex masses of North America. The disturbing nature of much of the subject matter, its mostly nonlinear style and the cerebral byways of the tale mark the film as something over and above mere popcorn fare. This is certainly a thriller much more in form than in substance; the genre trappings are employed mostly as an outer coating for the director's deeper examinations of the myriad mores of the global village. While the seemingly amoral character of the film may in fact put off some viewers, it's to Assayas' credit that he touches upon many issues that are simply glossed over by more mainstream films that work with the same type of subject matter. In the end, demonlover stands out as an incisive work of modern mythmaking, a sharp-edged and daring document of our times that is as intelligent and entertaining as any film that has passed in front of these eyes during this calendar year. For it may very well be that we truly are what we watch and hear -- and the inferred ramifications of that condition are as deeply interesting as they are also troublesome.



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