Long form: Five rounds with Olivier Assayas’ other masterpiece.
A cold shower in 2002, demonlover feels like a swan dive off an ice flow now. Not because Olivier Assayas’ sour view of corporate high-fliers going to war over the profits from online porn has kept any novelty – it really hasn’t, and the porn itself has seeped into everything anyway. And it’s not hard to find films which take deliberate left turns in mid-stream either, although a better description of Assayas’ tactic would be that he hangs demonlover upside down by the ankles. The sting comes from mixing a thoroughly pessimistic opinion of the world with the most optimistic view possible of how a film could tackle that world. Assayas believes that films can do anything, and demonlover gives it a shot.
The set-up sounds like David Cronenberg in an anti-globalisation funk, as Mangatronics, TokyoAnime and Volf Corporation circle each other over the rights to distribute hardcore hentai. Volf’s chief negotiator Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen) poisons one of her own colleagues in the first five minutes and spars constantly with another, Elise (Chloe Sevigny), so the film simmers with doubts about who works for who and why. A fourth outfit, Demonlover, enters the picture in the form of Elaine (Gina Gershon), and it’s their links with torture porn website The Hellfire Club which open the trapdoor through which Assayas tips the story and the audience.
After that, demonlover is off to the races. Diane and Elise seem to swap positions, everyone goes in for inexplicable behaviour and RANDOM shouting, the film stops for a nine-minute dinner break, and large sweaty men squeeze Diane into that catsuit and get the electrodes out. Geography evaporates, as the action inexplicably crosses oceans in a single fade and ends up in a twilight desert car chase that’s all headlights and helicopters and Sonic Youth’s needling score, Vanishing Point by way of David Lynch. No techno-thriller has ever eloped with its art-house cousin so eagerly.
No film has made better use of Connie Nielsen’s rarefied European grace, either. Very much at home with Assayas’ habit of writing strong ambiguous women, and operating way beyond the ice queen routines that Taylor Hackford and Ridley Scott lumbered her with, Nielsen sets Diane in stone and then chips away from the inside, while Assayas and his DoP Denis Lenoir leave her marooned by office partitions and trapped by reflections. The pairing with Chloe Sevigny, busy beaming in from an off-kilter planet all her own, is a perfectly awkward clash of acting styles, poise versus instinct, and Assayas knows exactly how to handle the contrast. While Diane goes into meltdown on a hotel room floor, Elise proves her disinterest with a spot of naked gaming, a pose that should be Sevigny’s most iconic indie-nymph moment instead of the one involving Vincent Gallo’s penis.
Irma Vep, a whole other masterpiece with a whole other catsuit, found Assayas in love with movies but fretting about the effect of the outside world on the creative souls that make them. demonlover knows that the people running the outside world have lost their souls already, and the director’s response is to loosen the film’s screws and let it fall where it will. The bits and pieces in the wreckage – the lively balance of colour and contrast, the way the plot spins off its axis into a world of hurt without getting cynical, the very idea of matching Connie Nielsen and Gina Gershon – are covered in Assayas’ authentic movie-loving fingerprints, but the film they come from is as fluid and ambiguous as the amoral world it’s looking at. Holding both ideas in its head at the same time makes demonlover seem positively hopeful, and it’s that sense of hope that keeps pulling me back to Assayas. Connie Nielsen ends up looking accusingly at the audience, and in light of what’s happened in the years since who could blame her, but no film as aware as this one of what happens when a camera points in her direction can ever really lose faith.