The Rise of the Machines

The Future Is Today, in Olivier Assayas's Plugged-In Virtual Porn Cyberthriller

A shiny, wireless perpetual-motion machine, forever in flux as if to stave off obsolescence, Olivier Assayas's demonlover makes other present-day movies look like moldering period pieces.

Opening in a capacious first-class cabin (and gliding on to a coolly luxurious succession of airport lounges, hotel lobbies, leatherette backseats, carpeted corridors, and glass elevators), the film unfolds in a trance of jet-lagged rootlessness. It embroils glamorous executives in a backstabbing war over a monopoly on animated and Internet porn, but demonlover, which opens this Friday at the Sunshine (see review), is no mere corporate cyberthriller.

Fraught with the data density, broadband velocity, and point-and-click interconnectedness of early 21st-century life, it's a phantasmagoric vision of sex, violence, power, and consumption in an irreversibly globalized landscape. Multinational capital and new media serve as all-purpose lubricants in this gleaming, borderless land of efficiency and profit, liquefying the distinctions between public and private, between virtual and real, to the extent that the predatory marketers of these lurid role-playing fantasies are ultimately indistinguishable from their products.

Demonlover director  Assayas: "People should be able to create their own pornography."
photo: Robert Hale
Demonlover director Assayas: "People should be able to create their own pornography."

Decked out as it is with assorted techno-gadgetry, demonlover doesn't ape the aesthetics of video games and websites (as movies like Lara Croft and feardotcom hopelessly attempt to) so much as it distills the virtual, interactive experience to its conceptual essence. "I'm using an extremely simplified version of the Internet," says Assayas. "It's really just this notion that anybody's fantasies are three clicks away. I think demonlover is both high-tech and low-tech. Someone like William Gibson is extremely aware of the complexities of the virtual world and the functioning of the Internet. I'm interested in that, but I'm concerned more with our relationship with images, how the flow of images transforms us."

For Assayas, the explosive growth of the Internet is a mindfuck we've yet to fully apprehend, its implications not just economic but existential: "You have so many subdivisions of any single topic on the Internet that ultimately, you are within it yourself. Whatever your fantasy is, whatever specific, tiny thing you're interested in, you'll end up finding something that will answer it directly. There's a kind of mirror effect going on: The Internet is based on our fantasies, but these fantasies, created on the Internet by someone else, end up being injected into us."

The Paris-based Assayas says he conceived of demonlover as a counterpoint to his previous feature, the spellbinding, sun-dappled historical epic Les Destinées. (It screens at MOMA Gramercy's September 18-21 retro alongside the cinephilic frolic Irma Vep, the heady portrait of '70s adolescence Cold Water, and the rest of the Assayas oeuvre—minutely textured contemplations of youth and other liminal states, tangled up in shades of blue.) A painter and a Cahiers du Cinéma critic before he started making movies, Assayas says demonlover was an attempt to engage with the warp-speed mutations of real life: "I think there's an artistic responsibility to be aware that our world is changing incredibly fast and in extremely disturbing ways.

"It scares me that independent films are not evolving fast enough," he continues. "Mainstream films are at least somehow connected with a collective subconscious. They're collective works—there's a director, but ultimately no one made it, the machine created it. Without knowing it, they end up expressing pretty complex things about our fears and obsessions, even when they have the most primitive narratives. Something like Terminator 3—on the one hand, it's a conventional third installment, but it's also a movie about how men are scared of the modernity of femininity. To me that film was saying that men are outdated, but girls are so connected, so much sharper, and a major threat." (He could well be describing the gender dynamic in demonlover, which is full of connected, sharp, majorly threatening women, and reaches a turning point with a hallucinatory catfight between Connie Nielsen and Gina Gershon.)

Connie Nielsen in demonlover: "It's a cautionary tale for actors."
(photo: Palm Pictures)
Echoing the recent grievances of numerous French intellectuals, Assayas reserves special contempt for the nostalgia and provincialism that increasingly loom over his Amélie-smitten native culture. "France is very insular in many ways," he says. "French cinema is disconnecting itself from representing the modern world. It's almost as if the definition of an independent film is a film without cell phones and cars; it takes place in the '50s or in some fairy-tale land in a tiny community." He cites the documentary To Be and to Have, which drew record crowds in Paris (and, ironically, opens opposite demonlover in New York this week). "I understand that it's comforting to see this cute film about this French school, but it's incredibly reactionary because it's fake—maybe it exists for five people."

Assayas seems especially pained that independent films, now redolent of escapism and even high culture, are skewing older and more conservative. "These movies are aimed at audiences who are scared of their children, scared of their values and their technology. They feel threatened by how the world is changing, so for two hours, they live in this simple dream world with no aggressive threat of modernity. There's something I care for extremely in French independent cinema—that's the system I come from and function in—but it has trouble understanding other cultures; it has trouble even looking at the world."

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