Transaction and distraction: the malign splendor of Olivier Assayas’s
Demonlover, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, available to watch via Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema
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When I first saw Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover during its US theatrical run, more than a year after its 2002 Cannes debut, I recall admiring its gestures to contemporaneity—so few filmmakers, then as now, seemed as interested as Assayas is in trying to grasp the cold surfaces of digital-age life—and also finding it, on the whole, pretty silly. A movie about corporate gamesmanship revolving around a deal to distribute 3D hentai porn that shuttles between Paris and Tokyo before finally landing in the Mexican desert, it was all just so unrelentingly grim and doomy. The film’s cutthroat businesswomen (Connie Nielsen, Chloë Sevigny, Gina Gershon, Dominique Reymond) are as ruthless as any man, and each given to what seemed to me at that moment to be masculine recreations: watching pornography, gaming, and stabbing professional rivals in the back. Surely people weren’t really like this, not women anyway, and surely this wasn’t the world! Well, time makes fools of us all.
Demonlover never left, and Demonlover is back again. I first saw it on 35mm film; you can see the new restoration at Film at Lincoln Center’s “virtual cinema,” which is to say on a glowing rectangle, which is probably what you’re reading this on, and probably what you spend a lot of your waking life staring at—an irreal new reality that Assayas understood was already very nearly the new normal. He understood, too, that we were going to be looking at our rectangles, but we weren’t necessarily going to be paying full attention to them. There would still be a “real world,” but it was going to be bleak enough out there that we’d probably prefer to half-look at our rectangles instead, and even if we intuited that there was some correlation between that escalating bleakness and the increased time spent on our rectangles, nothing was going to change, because the spectacle of catastrophe made for awfully compelling home viewing.
The product in Demonlover is CGI sex, which is to say sex without skin, post-sex sex. A Japanese company makes the premium product. Two French companies, Volf Corporation and Mangatronics, are vying for the rights, and Volf is in negotiations with Demonlover, a US company, for distribution. Diane (Nielsen) works for Volf but collects pay from Mangatronics to act as a monkey wrench in Volf’s gears. Her espionage duties lead to her drugging Reymond’s character, getting into a knock-down, drag-out brawl with Gershon’s Demonlover rep (who wears an iconic “I ♥ Gossip” T-shirt), and, finally, being dressed up like Storm from X-Men to go on cam for a torture-porn website, Hellfire Club, for which she’s about to be debased for the amusement of a suburban American teenager who isn’t even paying attention to the tableau that he paid to see, because he’s busy with his genetics (!) homework.
Since Demonlover is almost twenty years old now, this kid is all grown up, probably working in Silicon Valley, and probably ruining people’s lives in the name of disruption and innovation. There’s nobody else in the film you would call “likable,” exactly. Assayas’s insight is to present the running dogs of the global markets—the men especially, like Hervé (Charles Berling), Diane’s acquisitions partner—as acharismatic, impulse-driven blockheads. The film’s women have a hard-edged allure, at least, but everyone is work-consumed to the degree that it’s impossible to imagine them existing in any other context—Diane, in a poignant detail, has a single pitiful tattoo to signify a youthful “wild side.” The movie is quite stirring stuff notwithstanding, because we all ♥ gossip and shit-talking and double-dealing and clandestine meetups and above all sex and violence.
Demonlover appears in Assayas’s filmography between two movies that on the surface could not be more different from it: 2000’s Les destinées sentimentales, about the travails of an early-twentieth-century Limoges porcelain factory, based on a 1934 novel by Jacques Chardonne, and 2004’s Clean, about a woman, played by Maggie Cheung, trying to get off heroin after the overdose death of her rocker husband. I say “on the surface” because Demonlover, too, is a movie about addiction—those fucking glowing rectangles—and Demonlover, too, is about doing business in a rapidly metamorphosing economy, and trying to keep the pace.
Demonlover opens with Neu!’s “Hero,” a song defined by drummer Klaus Dinger’s motorik beat that seems to exemplify the pulse and pace of capitalism at its most thrummingly optimistic—its sound evokes trucks on the highway, sleek airport lounges, and the ceaseless, steady flow of assets. It ends with Norwegian black metal, specifically the choked, wet, goblin-like gurgles of Darkthrone’s “Kathaarian Life Code”—atavistic, reptilian brain, pagan sounds, music for the new Dark Ages. In between, courtesy of Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke, there is dreamy glissando and unholy clamor, a tectonic rumbling. Throughout, the movie carries you along with a queasy momentum and a corybantic, flitting multitasker’s eye for offhand detail.
The basic unit of the world that Assayas depicts is the transaction, and the constancy of transaction in everyday life dictates the film’s staccato cutting: a credit card being swiped, a receipt being torn, an ATM withdrawal, a skin mag purchased from a news vendor, even a decisive pelvic thrust during the act of sex. (We needn’t mention love here, which is unsound business practice.) As Robert Bresson did in L’argent (1983), Assayas assiduously follows the moving paper, for all of these transactions are the myriad little notes that together form the concerto of twenty-first-century life. And that concerto does have a sordid magnificence, which is why even as a lot of us kvetch about the horrors of late capitalism, a lot of us not-so-secretly can’t fathom living outside of it, because the action is a drug.
I hope you’ll be able to see Demonlover in a cinema someday—as I did again, sixteen years after that first encounter—and to submit to its malign splendor, its oppressive atmospherics, the sense it gives of being buried alive under data. It’s hard to be dominated by a movie at home, as the past eleven grim months have proven, between trips to the microwave and the bathroom, and anyway aren’t there some emails you should be answering? This feeling of sustained anxious diversion is central to Demonlover, which opens on an image of distraction that forms a bookend with the film’s conclusion: on a red-eye back to Paris, Diane recapitulates with her boss the details of their work trip. As she does so, he keeps stealing glances at the in-flight movie and at the image of a man scorched by a blossoming explosion. So we fiddle with devices as Rome burns, as the threatening flames of hellfire must compete for our attention with so many other workaday concerns, and so we might almost forget about them until we get a whiff of our own charred flesh.
Nick Pinkerton is the author of the book Goodbye, Dragon Inn, available in March from Fireflies Press as part of its Decadent Editions series. His writing on cinematic esoterica can be found at nickpinkerton.substack.com, among other venues.