The Rise of the Machines


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.

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.”

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.

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.

“It’s not that we could or should judge images on moral grounds,” says Assayas, who has a more specific target in mind: the corporate world’s takeover of the imagination. “Images are such a powerful way of controlling human reactions, or consumer reactions,” he says. “They circulate like money—they become money. The Internet creates the tool to control sexual fantasies, which until recently was the last private area. Now it’s been absorbed by major industry. Before the Internet you had specialist magazines, or sex shops, but it’s a specific type of person who would walk into a sex shop. Now it’s anybody, anywhere, any age, any remote area. I’m really against corporations controlling pornography because it’s a way of controlling the last area where people could use their own imaginations in autonomous ways. It’s a political point, not a moral one. People should be able to create their own pornography.”

Related Article:

J. Hoberman’s review of demonlover

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