Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
(And the best defense is a good offense.)
One of the great privileges of following contemporary film or literature is watching a relatively young artist –whose early, apprentice work shows the fissile promise of a raw talent who could go all the way– gather their resources about them, wind up, and get the chance to make their grand statement to eternity. To use all the tools at their disgustingly god-given disposal to try and cram the entire world within their magnum opus. The overarching, impossibly ambitious monuments to themselves they create can flat out ruin the artist when their impossible project fails: the nothing is more embarrassing than when the eyes of the pretentious are bigger than their talents. For all we know, Michael Cimino was swallowed up by a black hole after Heaven's Gate bombed to everyone but his studio's executives delight. Dennis Hopper wouldn't revive his career for twenty years after The Last Movie , and needed to play cinema's sickest, most unforgettable sadist in Blue Velvet to reannounce his presence.
Or the artist can end up making a statement so completely singular and specific to himself that it's ultimately nonsensical to the audience. Try thumbing through Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow — which everybody accuses of brilliance but inwardly suspects of illegibility — and see how much all the hours you pour into that reward you. The great balancing act within a work of art is making it so totally unique unto yourself that no one else could have possibly made it, yet be universal enough that other people can understand it.
But then there's the very rare, very lucky instance when the artist, working at the prime of his life and the height of his arrogance, manages to pull it off. The audience is rewarded with all its expectations fulfilled –and many things they couldn't possibly have expected besides. A book like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or a film like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia –made for all the right reasons by towering talents young and new enough to possess seemingly unlimited potential, and in total command of their medium –are packed so densely with virtuosic technique and humor and sincerity that the people who "get" them can keep going back to the well over and over again and come up with something new and beautiful every time.
For me, Olivier Assayas's Demonlover is one such experience. Assayas had made a decent career before this in France , making fourteen movies in twenty years for the apparently quite-sizable French art movie set and doing it quite well. But he went for it all in Demonlover, and he just about gets it. Heady themes abound in the movie: globalization, postindustrialization, alienation, corporatization, digitization, assimilation — and many other big words ending in -ation,” all of them large enough for three or four of their own movies. And it's a major sexual turn-on in all sorts of disturbing ways.
Like other great overarching artworks, it tries to marry all these big themes into the aesthetic DNA of the movie itself. The sexy, Euro-trashy characters in Demonlover are so corrupted and coopted by the corporate system that they've become mere ciphers; drones carrying out its brutal logic. There's not much warm humanism here, and right away people accustomed to Hollywood cinematic protagonists dripping with very American traits centering around a nexus of Protestant, democratic, Horatio Alger-y self-determination hit against a wall that can make embracing the movie difficult. French intellectuals of late have become notorious for drawing humans as nothing more than products of complex social and economic nets that draw the tightly constrained boundaries in which people can express more familiar, touchy-feely, Enlightenment concepts like freedom and choice. Not a new intellectual tradition — you can trace it quite easily back to at least Karl Marx, and if you're smarter than me probably a lot further — and definitely not one just particular to France. But under names like Deconstructionism, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, etc., this has, for the last thirty years or so, been the dominant paradigm of thought in American academia after its wildly successful importation from the French (who were pretty glad to get rid of it, by most accounts). Luckily, you don't need to be familiar with this sort of esoteric literature to "get"Demonlover ; let's just suffice it to say that Assayas — an intellectual himself (he began his career in film as a critic at the very uptown Cahiers du Cinema ) — is probably very conscious of working in this tradition, and if the apparent selfishness and coldness of these characters ticks your American heart off (which it very well might, assuming you're a regular moviegoer and not an English grad student), cut them a little slack for being at the mercy of a social net tightly constraining the limits of thought and choice.
So if the characters — so at the mercy of the system they exist within — don't drive the movie, what does? The plot?