Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
An Earnest-Yet-Doomed Attempt At a Plot Synopsis For Demonlover
All right, so basically a bunch of high-ranking, amoral (not to be confused with immoral) employees of large multinationals plot and scheme against each other so deviously that, by the end, they've all switched roles so many times — from aggressor to victim, then back, then back again– that they've become interchangeable. This fits right into a movie exploring the consequences and human effects of the corporate organizational structure. Plug anyone else into someone's position, and the result would be the same. Such is the logic of a system at the whim of the twin gods of (1) industrialization's division of labor and interchangeable parts and (2) and the relentless logic of the profit motive, where to object to growth and higher earnings on moral or any other grounds equals justification for termination and replacement.
Plus they live in the world of upper-management business travel, which is (I'm told) the same in every industrialized city — airport to hotel to conference room to expense account dinner to hotel to airport–and tends to further cut your umbilical cord from the mellowing effects of family and friends and turn you into a profit-generating machine: You live in a world where your "friends" are your clients, where every kindness is itemized and billed to you upon checkout, and each night you return all by yourself to a box identical to everyone else's — with the cold consolation of readily-available porn you can charge to your expense account. You may have caught a flukey glimpse of this world here and there; I have. It's the sort of place where you have to dress up to go to the ice machine; almost everyone in the lobby-type areas wear either sport coats or heels, and they all have that well-lotioned skin the rich always seem to possess when spotted in their natural habitat of tasteful, subtle lighting you know had to have been designed by somebody with only one name.
Plus, most of the women working for these corporations in this movie seem to be foxy, multilingual chicks (this is either a comment on the feminization of the workplace and the sexual assertiveness and power attractive women are increasingly practicing therein, or just a French director's way to get us turned on; I suspect both). Ice princess Connie Nielsen (you may have seen her lusting over Russell Crowe in Gladiator) poisons her boss on the opening flight and hires two men to kidnap her boss at the airport, finally leaving her out-foxed* employer to die in her trunk. She turns back up, but Nielsen's already got her job. Her higher-up supervisor knows Nielsen's probably responsible for her boss's disappearance, but "business is business"; they can't afford to wait for the other lady to recover, so Nielsen permanently gets her job. Nielsen then flies off to Japan to buy a company that creates computer-animated porn — which the scenes where they go to the animation company and preview the porn is reason enough to check this movie out. By the end, an American company that's diversifying into an Internet porn site selling access to Russian snuff films (the eponymous "Demonlover") merges with her company, and she sniffs around this site herself, looking for another way to break past her desensitization and actually feel some eroticism. Before she can even object to it morally, her put-upon assistant, Chloe Sevingy (you may have seen her blowing Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny ), turns the tables on her. Oh yeah, and Gina Gershon shows up for one of the best knock-down, drag-out catfights in recent memory.
And be warned: it makes a lot more sense reading a synopsis than it does when you actually watch the film.
(For the record, Assayas is no squeamish cultural conservative denouncing pictures of nekkid ladies. He's said this movie isn't a critique of pornography, but rather of pornography's inevitable subsumption by multinational corporations, and this holds up when you watch it. Demonlover puts us in a helpless coma while we watch as the very last layers of our most private selves — our eroticism — are turned into just another urge to be soothed by commodity. Those of you switching over from this review to check in on your porn sites may know what he's talking about. You know who you are.)
As the movie unfolds, the plot itself metastasizes into something unrecognizable as a human character storyline and is pulled along in the irresistible undertow of ever-assimilating corporate culture, turning everyone and everything in its path into a vessel for its ends. The conspiracy seemingly started by Nielsen at the beginning of the movie spirals so far out of control that she and we become totally disoriented as to who's working for who and how the hell she ends up in Mexico live via web cam.
Just Let it Unfold According to Its Own Peculiar Logic and Enjoy the Ride
The opening images — in which giant fireballs from an anonymous action movie combust soundlessly on plasma TV screens generously scattered about a first class airline cabin, where sexy European corporate VP types either slip into Valium-ferried dreams or cunningly fight for position in the company hierarchy, like the dinosaurs left behind on Jurassic Park Island — suggest enough about the comfortable seductions of the profit motive and the seeds of destruction sewn therein that the following two hours of movie are almost superfluous. This brilliantly rendered, mostly dialogue-free, unfolding conspiracy in the opening scenes is like getting picked up by an incredibly good-looking, unbelievably sexually-experienced sensualist. It's seductive enough that you'll eagerly surrender to whatever the rest of the movie wants to do to you…up to a point, when it starts doing very weird and kinky and generally creepy, inexplicable things. At that point, you might get a 75/25 difference in people who will split when things get strange and those who get turned on and want to stick around
Assayas understands that movies derive their true, unchallenged supremacy in our culture because of the overwhelming power of images shot onto giant screens in darkened rooms as the audience stares up hypnotically. The sound design and soundtrack (by Sonic Youth, by the way) subliminally thrums throughout, pulling you so close to these repetitive pictures of oblivion barely contained within the heart of interchangeable luxury that you can feel its hot breath on your face. The characters are as attractive and shallow as the designer architecture and furniture that surround them, and neither subject nor background are shot with preferential treatment — it's all B-roll. Assayas's somnolently sexy images and sounds are tied loosely to this story of amoral corporate maneuvering and the market-capture of the roughest neighborhoods of the porn industry, until the "heroine" somewhat ironically falls from the distribution of snuff porn to the slightly more undignified position of starring in it. Then — and this is where description starts to fail and you need to just check it out for yourself — the knots come loose and the images break away from any cohesive narrative at all. Like the last twenty minutes of Mulholland Drive, the last act of Demonlover only makes a very surreal kind of sense; if youêve ever listened to a person enjoying extremely powerful and potentially irreversible recreational chemicals telling a very complicated story, then you've got the idea.
The annoyingly common criticism of Demonlover boils down to Assayas's unwillingness* to hew to recognizable, consistent characters and a logical through-story. (And when I say that Demonlover got trashed by many critics, I'm not saying he got some middling two-star reviews: This movie got ferociously, unanimously booed out of the theater at the Cannes Film Festival. (Or so I've read.)) It's not just that these criticisms are objectionable based on the fact that they assume that the consistency and continuity of mainstream and near-mainstream feature films are the only valid and correct forms of cinematic expression — although they are. Not quite disinterested in the way "experimental" or "avant garde" or "video artist" filmmakers are when it comes to plot and character, Assayas's crime in Demonlover — much like David Lynch's in many of his movies — is setting up a story and characters recognizable to people who've been fed comfortably and happily on the basic feature film formula (and isn't that basically all of us?), and then, just as we're getting comfortable with the reality he's set out for us, pulling the rug out from underneath clichþ.
*Actually, they should realize it's his disinterestedness.
Note that the logic of these movies is not dissimilar to a Confidence Game movie (e.g. David Mamet's Spanish Prisoner or House of Games ) or a Big Twist movie, where everything you've heretofore seen has to be reevaluated in the light of the heavily telegraphed twist towards the end (e.g. Fight Club, The Usual Suspects , or any M. Night Shyamalan flick). Audiences trained to prize continuity and story logic thrill to Big Twist movies because the clues to the actual reality of the movie are all there, and the filmmakers' skill in showing all of these clues in plain sight while craftily hiding the true reality until the Moment of Realization — often accompanied by flashbacks from earlier in the movie of the clues we missed — is obvious and appreciable by anyone who closely followed the film.
Why, thank you. I'm quite fond of them myself.
It's the same joy we get when someone is telling a joke, and we know thereês going to be a great punchline, but don't put it together until the joke-teller gets to it; or, even more accurately, when a magician explains how he pulled off a particularly magical magic trick in plain sight. The difference with Mulholland Drive or Demonlover (and also pretty much every R-rated Lynch movie to some extent; plus Assayas'sIrma Vep ), and the reason why half the audience you see it in the theater with will throw their hands up in disgust and become purposefully rude and talkative towards the end of the movie*, is that there is no new reality that magically becomes understandable once the audience gets the key** to the movie. There is no delightful sleight-of-hand. It's like the magician has sawed his lovely assistant in half, but then doesn't bother to show you at the end that she's still doing just fine in one lovely piece.
*Baffling, illogical behavior, since instead of punishing and ridiculing the filmmakers — who even the densest, most literal-minded moviegoer must realize probably isn't attending the same screening they are — they punish their fellow moviegoers who shelled out $4.75 a cheek to sit in the theater.
**Literally, in Mulholland Drive.
So rather than ending in cahoots with the filmmaker/magician, some audience members feel robbed, cheated, made fools of. They put in all that work sitting on their ass for two hours staring passively at a bright screen in front of them, and are then rudely told it was all for naught, or, worse, made to feel stupid that they didn't "get it" while the film-school fops sitting behind them make knowing, smug comments, congratulating themselves for their aesthetic refinement. The result: rather than possibly admit the fact that they saw something new and different and maybe kinda cool, they just blast the film for not conforming to their expectations. This is not a totally unreasonable reaction to people who just saw something that totally defied all their previous experiences: imagine what you'd say upon returning home from a football game in which the Vikings and Bears played three quarters of grind-it-out, smash mouth football, and then, in the fourth quarter, Randy Moss and Brian Urlacher tenderly laid each other out on the grass and 69'd for four hours.
Aside: One Thing Characters in Olivier Assayas Movies Often Do That Real-Life People Do all The Time But that You Almost Never Really See Characters In Other Movies or TV Shows Do:
Just sit there and watch TV.