Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 05, 2003 1:18 am 
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Beautiful murk, but still murk

Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover begins as a handsome-looking corporate techno thriller that ranges between France, Japan, and the US and involves cutthroat executives from all three countries speaking all three languages who start out cutting deals and wind up cutting throats. Two products are involved, soft-core porn Japanese animé, of which the new version is 3-D, and a well concealed S & M website that appears to provide the infliction of real physical pain to order. Demonlover is a consistently beautiful but too self-indulgent film that ends in utter confusion.

As the film begins, a few executives of a French conglomerate called VolfGroup go to Japan and arrange to buy out TokyoAnimé, whose new 3-D manga porn films are going to wipe out all competition. TokyoAnimé needs the French money to develop their new 3-D technology. Diane (Connie Nielson) drugs a rival in the company to operate beside Hervé (Charles Berling) in these negotiations.

Meanwhile two companies are battling for the rights to VolfGroup’s new images on the Web: Mangatronics and Demonlover, and it turns out Mangatronics has recruited Diane to sabotage Demonlover from the inside.

This develops after the French return from their deal in Tokyo and are visited by Demonlover representatives from the USA who’re a boorish lot dominated by Elaine (Gina Gershon, seen here as a tattooed, pot smoking babe). Diane sneaks up on Elaine and tries to off her -— or maybe she succeeds -- but no, because she pops right up again, as in a video game.

The S & M website, known as ‘The Hellfire Club,’ also belongs to Demonlover, although its reps vehemently deny that. The Hellfire Club keeps coming up and figures prominently at the end – which is strange since Hervé has told the Japanese VolfGroup cannot be into anything illegal, and you wonder why a big conglomerate would allow such a marginal and questionable thing to invade their deal.

Once Diane starts stalking Elaine, the action becomes violent, dreamlike, and confusing; perhaps it's all become a video game, but we're not told that. Diane flirts around with her lower-level associate, played by Chlöe Sevigny, but it’s never clear whether they are rivals, enemies, or potential friends. The action becomes a matter of cars, corridors, beds, bars, seductions, and voyages in the rain. The surreal atmosphere is reminiscent of Cocteau or the Jean-Gabriel Albicocco of the mysterious 1961 Girl with the Golden Eyes. Visually it’s beautiful, and the sound track is lush, but the plot, which was rather complicated at first, now becomes incomprehensible. A promo piece by the film's US distrubuters openly acknowledges this and excuses it thus: “Demonlover proves most compelling when it feels the least coherent or grounded in reality. Rather than keeping up with exactly which side of the game each major character appears to be playing on at a given moment in the story, viewers are almost better served just going along for the ride, letting the film take them where it will.” Yes, but the ride unfortunately goes nowhere.

Demonlover makes skillful use of extreme close-ups and intense sound. The wedding of image (by Denis Lenoir) and music (by Peter O'Rourke and Sonic Youth) creates a dreamlike, hypnotic effect. But what is happening? Somewhere half way through the plot virtually disintegrates before our eyes. The same promo sheet says it’s no more complicated than James Bond movie, but this is unfair, because in Bond movies the good guys and bad guys are usually quite clearly defined, and here they distinctly are not. There is something mean spirited, too, in the way every nationality is abused: the Japanese are patsies, the Americans are boors, and the French are rude and exploitive.

The latter part of Demonlover, in short, gives the appearance of having been edited more for audiovisual effect than for narrative coherence. Despite the intriguing sensory experience the film offers, our interest in the plot and the characters with which the film begins is never satisfied.

Another source of dissatisfaction comes from pretensions to timeliness and significance. The filmmakers seem to think that buying and selling animé (with the B-picture tie-in of illicit S & M porn sites) is a significant indicator of media manipulation. But whether it’s magazines or 3-D manga, pornography and the imaginative or financial involvement in it are nothing new. The way media is getting into the hands of a smaller and smaller number of mega companies is significant, but that’s not Assayas’ interest. Anyway, it's usually better not to try too consciously to be cutting edge, as Assayas’ declarations show him to have been doing in Demonlover.

The actors are working hard, but their efforts are largely wasted. Connie Nielson, who has the bulk of screen time, is wonderful to look at. Her face is elegant and teases: is it a come-hither or a bugger-off look she is flashing to Charles Berling all the time? One never quite knows. Perhaps she herself wasn’t told. Her ambiguity works for quite a while. One gets lost in that face. But it doesn’t tell us anything, and since there is no sense of an ending, the later scenes fall flat.

For a movie that has a clear-cut and relevant treatment of cyber crime themes and really has some bearing on the danger of global takeovers and media manipulation -- but also provides the entertainment value of a clearcut thriller plot, take a look at Peter Howitt's 2001 AntiTrust with Ryan Phillippe and Tim Robbins. Without the pretention, it does a better job on all fronts.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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