The Rise of the Machines

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

Taking a cue from cosmopolitan sci-fi, Assayas looked to Asia. Having made a documentary on the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien and been married for several years to the Hong Kong movie idol Maggie Cheung (star of Irma Vep and his upcoming Clean, in which she'll play a widowed ex-junkie trying to get her kid back from her in-laws), he'd spent a lot of time in East Asia in recent years. Demonlover originated partly from being immersed in cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo, where, Assayas says, "there's a desire to connect to modernity, through architecture, through electronics, sometimes in ugly and unpleasant ways. But these are cultures with a very pure notion of modernity—a place like Hong Kong, and you could argue that this energy has now moved to Shanghai, is about absorbing whatever's happening here and now and whiting out what was happening yesterday."

Demonlover's dislocated sense of perpetual transit is enforced with the casting of Connie Nielsen, the Danish-born actress with a budding Hollywood career (Gladiator, Basic), as alternately opaque and ethereal ice queen Diane de Monx. A ruthless, impossibly chic businesswoman, all hard angles and murky allegiances, switching between accentless French and Eng-lish, Diane slips on various guises in the name of corporate espionage, and finds the boundary between self and fantasy growing ever more porous. "It's a cautionary tale for actors," says Nielsen with a laugh.

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."

There's a caustic humor in the way demonlover dryly juxtaposes the tactics and consequences of modern business (contract hardball, sociopathic bloodsport, omnidirectional suspicion, free-floating paranoia, double and triple crosses) against the tawdriness of the commodities under negotiation (of which Assayas provides generous samples—the anime tentacle phalli are particularly memorable). As Nielsen puts it: "I loved how we were speaking in this bizarre, sterile language about things that are anything but sterile."

Assayas says he doesn't believe in directing actors: "You choose an actor and the part belongs to them." When I tell Nielsen this, she frowns. "It's funny—I felt like he was directing us. I suppose it isn't psychological work, but he really brings you to that place. He frames the situation and lets you live in it—I felt like I'd lived through this horrible nightmare. I hated my character by the end of it."

Director and actor concur that the process was entirely instinctual. "It was from the gut," says Assayas. "I often had no idea what I was doing—it's the one film I've made where I followed my instinct in the most determined and faithful way." "It was important to maintain the tension," says Nielsen. "It was a challenge to try and make a weird sort of sense from the complete illogic of her choices, but if you start asking yourself why and how and what all the time, the whole thing starts to disintegrate."

Demonlover does, in fact, start to fissure somewhere around the halfway mark—a detonation that may at first seem Lynchian, akin to the rupture that splits Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive in two, though it's more of a terminal hemorrhage in this case; the narrative puzzle remains stubbornly unsolvable. "I don't think I'm experimenting that much," says Assayas of the film's open-ended, coldly withholding structure. "I didn't want to be stuck in the old ways of narrative. I was trying to be aware of how our relationship to images has changed in the modern world, where you watch five minutes of TV and 10 minutes of a film and you play a game on your computer. The simplest way to put it is that we look at images in a more poetic way now.

"With demonlover, I tried to use fragments of ancient narrative," he continues. "The beginning of the film is classic thriller-type stuff and then it becomes more dreamlike, where things are more dense and compact. There's an internal logic of rhymes and correspondences; two or three things connect to make a fourth. It's very much like poetry—the very word scares people because they think it'll be boring, but you could say the same thing about music videos."

After it's freed from the linear narrative obligations of the first half, demonlover develops its own hypertextual syntax of cut and paste, pause and reload, scroll and backspace. The hypnotic, indefinitely unraveling procession of non sequiturs gives the impression of several DVD-ready alternate versions in one, bits of random access memory regrouping each time in subtly different constellations—on repeat viewings, you can never be sure you're watching the exact same film. Assayas says he's found that younger audiences have a higher tolerance for demonlover's abandonment of storytelling logic: "They don't have the same relationship to conventional narrative, for good and bad reasons. They live in a world of disconnected narrative. It's older viewers who tend to complain that it doesn't make sense."

Guy Debord concludes his preface to the 1992 edition of The Society of the Spectacle with a caveat: "This book should be read bearing in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society. There was never anything outrageous, however, about what it had to say." A similar sentiment underlies demonlover, a film designed to seduce and repel, obfuscate and edify, in equal measure.

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