Slick Surfaces And Much Confusion; Assayas' Ambitious "demonlover"
by Peter Brunette
[Peter Brunette's following review was of the version of "demonlover" that played at Cannes 2002; the film has since been altered with a new sound mix and 12 minutes of cuts.]
Flinging himself all over the cinematic landscape, the young and very talented French director Olivier Assayas has gone from deeply personal, auteurist films like "L'eau froide" and "Fin Aout, Debut Septembre," which center on contemporary or near-contemporary Parisian life, to their polar opposite, "Les Destinees Sentimentales" (known in the U.S. simply as "Les Destinees"), a flawed, but deeply ambitious turn-of-the-century family saga that rivals Thomas Mann's novel "Buddenbrooks" in its epic sweep. With "demonlover," which swings back again to the present and the presumably most "advanced" reaches of the contemporary, postmodern obsession with images, Assayas' ambition may have taken him one step too far, and over the edge. It's a film jam-packed with shiny surfaces and glittering ideas, and it's impossible to take your eyes off the incessant parade of images, like the insistent television in your relatives' living room. Nevertheless, the surfaces never become more than that and the ideas, which must have looked great on paper, don't much work.
The ostensible motor behind all this frenetic activity is a rivalry between two high-tech companies called Mangatronics and demonlover, who vie for a contract with a multinational corporation run by a Frenchman named Henri-Pierre Volf. Each wants access, through Volf, to the newest 3-D software developed by a Japanese company called TokyoAnime, which, it turns out, is to be used for sites of pornographic torture on the Web. The focus of the action is on three of Volf's employees: Diane (Connie Nielsen, best known for her role in "Gladiator"), who is secretly working against demonlover on behalf of Mangatronics; her colleague Herve (Charles Berling) and her assistant Elise (Chloe Sevigny).
The plot is (purposely, I suspect) impossible to follow and if the above account seems sketchy, it's the best that can be done. Toward the end of the film, especially, you haven't the slightest idea where you are or who you're to root for. But whereas the lack of coherency in a film by a master mood-setter like David Lynch can lead to a compensatory haunting quality that seems to rise from its very incoherence, with Assayas it's just confusion. "demonlover" admirably focuses its action on the female characters -- the men in the film seem largely an afterthought, mere consumers of its ubiquitous images -- but the women don't seem to be really there either. Assayas has said that he wanted his characters, especially Diane, to remain unreal and abstract, but unfortunately he's been so successful in that regard that it's very hard to care about them, and consequently the film, at all. Diane is continually compared to the 3-D figures that people the film's oft-seen computer games, as well as to the automatons we see dancing catatonically in a Tokyo nightclub, but we end up with the same amount of emotional attachment to her as to these others, which is to say, none. Charles Berling's Herve, with his perpetual three-day stubble, is all too human but is so slimy a character that we don't care much for him either. Chloe Sevigny seems seriously miscast, a lost refugee from an American independent film who seems to be much too young to be caught up in the nefarious workings of this company or this film. More than one confrontation between her character and Nielsen's toward the end of the film seems downright silly, and the entire story is soon overwhelmed by a host of almost hilarious inconsistencies.
Like much of the culture right now, Assayas seems obsessed by images. His camera constantly shows characters -- again, especially, Diane -- reflected in shiny surfaces as though in funhouse mirrors and, as French theorist Roland Barthes did many years ago in his little-known book "Empire of Signs," Assayas predictably locates his imagistic postmodernity in Japan, supposedly the realm of pure surface. Assayas also favors the hand-held, extreme close-ups that purposely disorient and reduce reality to a visual, expressive blur. Up to a point, of course, there's nothing wrong with this, and one admires the ambition and the kaleidoscopic wonders the director constantly spins out, but eventually one wants something more intellectually nourishing. Instead, Assayas revels in their assaultive powers, dwelling insistently on images of torture supposedly available on the Web; while presumably tsk-tsking, he's also giving us huge eyefuls all the while. The confrontational nature of the images is seconded by the film's soundtrack, which has been provided by Sonic Youth; in fact, it's one of the best things about it, but there too, you eventually think, enough's enough.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that despite its in-your-face attitude and its desperate desire to shock, there's nothing really new in this film that we've already seen magnificently achieved in "The Matrix" or, more lamely, in Joel Schumacher's "8MM." Let's hope that the next time out, Assayas remembers there's more to life, and maybe even more to life in the future, than their mere surface reflections.