The enigmatic antiheroine of Olivier Assayas’s diabolical techno thriller, Demonlover (2002), suggests a female cyber-age equivalent of the archetypal Man With No Name. Diane (Connie Nielsen), as she calls herself, is a coolly seductive industrial spy of ambiguous sexuality, with an invented résumé, who sometimes speaks in riddles. During a romantic dinner with Hervé (Charles Berling), her suspicious but lustful boss at a Paris-based multinational conglomerate, she declares: ”No one sees anything, ever. They watch but they don’t understand.”
Demonlover is a movie about becoming what you watch. It plays head games as relentlessly as Diane pursues her espionage work for Magnatronics, a media company threatened with extinction by an aggressive American rival. The complicated plot, which makes more metaphorical than literal sense, involves the desperate struggle of Magnatronics and its equally ruthless and determined American competitor, which owns a worldwide network of pornographic Web sites called Demonlover, to control the cutting-edge technology of Tokyoanime, a Japanese company. It is a hugely profitable pioneering producer of pornographic comic books and anime films that needs a hefty infusion of capital to develop its 3-D animation technology.
The cutthroat sleuthing on both sides involves burglaries, abductions, computer theft and mutual intimidation. The dirty tricks culminate in a scene in which two rival agents appear to kill each other but then, like animated characters, rise unscathed and continue to do battle. This is the moment at which Demonlover finally crosses the line from a semi-realistic post-Hitchcockian thriller into something that resembles a video game.
Demonlover, which opens today in Manhattan and Los Angeles, is a radical change of direction for Mr. Assayas, the gifted French director whose last film, Les Destinées (also starring Mr. Berling), was a lavish family chronicle set in the early decades of the 20th century. Determinedly contemporary, Demonlover imagines an ominous future of computerized home entertainment in which cyberwise suburban teenagers, with only a few clicks on their computer screens, can visit an interactive pornography site called Hellfire Club, which invites them to think up tortures for a disturbingly lifelike female captive.
As the melodrama accelerates, there are signs that Diane is on the verge of plunging into a virtual rabbit hole and ending up an animated character chained in a dungeon. And as the movie metamorphoses from corporate thriller into a sci-fi parable, it makes the same bold leaps into the irrational as Mulholland Drive and Fight Club, movies whose initially straightforward narratives also veered into mazelike halls of mirrors.
Denis Lenoir’s cinematography intersperses evocatively murky portraits of Tokyo nightlife and a rain-swept Paris with vertiginous animated sequences, then artfully blends the two styles. The entrancing visual imagery goes a long way toward filling in the screenplay’s gaps in logic.
One scene visits a Tokyo nightclub where the gleaming, curvaceous female entertainers resemble animated androids gyrating and chirping like electronic chipmunks. The trippier sequences suck the eye into churning maelstroms that ultimately tunnel toward a nightmarish cul-de-sac.
Ms. Nielsen projects the same blend of mystery, calculation and sensuality that she brought to her regal role in Gladiator. Chloë Sevigny as Diane’s hostile, duplicitous assistant, Elise, and Gina Gershon as Elaine, the tattooed, brass-knuckles-tough negotiator for the Americans, emit scorching dramatic sparks. In portraying the French moguls and their lackeys as relatively courtly business executives compared with the rapacious American boors, Demonlover flaunts a strain of anti-Americanism. ”It’s like drugs or prostitution — supply and demand, with organized crime pulling the strings,” one loutish wheeler-dealer says with a shrug.
The movie has its finger on the racing pulse of an idea that is already becoming a cliché. Is our virtual culture of violent images and hyperactive stimulation sabotaging our humanity? Might the technological games we think we’re mastering be programming us into becoming soulless automatons? Unlike The Matrix, Mr. Assayas’s variation on the theme comes without philosophical baggage and has no hero.
Review courtesy of The New York Times