'Demonlover': Everything Is Not What It Seems

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2003

THE TITLE of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas's disturbing, darkly beautiful "Demonlover," with its implication of something that is both desirable and dangerous, is perfectly apt. On one level, it is the name of the company and Web site whose business it is, in the world of the film, to disseminate the kind of animated pornography that the Japanese have seemingly turned into a cottage industry. On another, less literal level, the gothic-sounding neologism could be read as a kind of poetic description of our contemporary appetite for the kind of technologies -- cell phones, e-mail, interactive Web sites, computer games, etc. -- that seduce us with their promises of instant access, stimulation and connection to others, but which really might be turning us into tech-addicted monsters who can no longer relate to each other.

Set in what looks very much like today (albeit a today that I'm not sure I want to live in), "Demonlover" is, at least superficially, a kind of corporate-espionage thriller. Its heroine, beautiful, affectless Diane (Connie Nielsen), works for the Parisian firm VolfGroup, a multinational behemoth of a company poised to acquire TokyoAnime, a production facility whose state-of-the-art 3-D animated smut will make her employer the premier producer of digital filth in the world.

Meanwhile, two other companies, Mangatronics and Demonlover, are fighting for the exclusive rights to distribute that smut to the world over the Internet.

Secretly on the Mangatronics payroll, Diane hopes to keep Demonlover from getting its hands on the new product. In the film's first few minutes, in fact, she's shown edging out a co-worker, Karen (Dominique Reymond), with a judiciously spiked cup of Evian water, just so Diane can be closer to the contract negotiations. Quickly promoted to the ailing Karen's job, Diane soon discovers that Demonlover also runs an interactive torture Web site, a nasty bit of business that she plans to use to convince her lawsuit-averse boss (Jean-Baptiste Malartre) that Mangatronics is the better business partner.

Think that's complicated? Things get really knotty for our antiheroic heroine when Karen's former assistant, Elise (Chloe Sevigny), starts acting resentful of her new boss's sudden rise up the corporate ladder, and when Herve (Charles Berling), a lustful colleague of Diane's, begins insinuating that he might suspect a thing or two as well. What began as a little office politics and corporate skullduggery (okay, much more than a little) is soon spiraling out of control, as Diane, in a violent confrontation with Demonlover exec Gina Gershon, proves herself capable of more than slipping a co-worker a mickey.

But writer-director Assayas's suspense-oriented plot is not "Demonlover's" strong suit. While a stylish exemplar of contemporary film noir, its narrative arc feels peripheral to the film's point, and the film's pessimistic conclusion may leave lovers of conventional mystery unsatisfied.

Rather, "Demonlover's" strength lies in subtext over text. Neither a whodunit nor a howdunit, the film's subtle indictment of our contemporary times and mores is best summed up when Diane tells Herve, apropos of her suspicion that she has been under surveillance, "No one sees anything. Ever. They watch but they don't understand." (It's also a line that could well describe a more shallow viewer's reaction to this movie.)

Earlier in the film, Diane asks Herve to look deeply into her eyes in order to get to know her better, but his blank gaze, and her gorgeous but impenetrable return stare, are only two of Assayas's hints that, despite every gadget and technological innovation that seems to make the world smaller, faster, cooler, there will always be an unbridgeable gap between individuals who are already dead inside.

DEMONLOVER (Unrated, 117 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, images of violence and torture and significant erotic content, including digitally censored flashes of graphic animated sex. In English, Japanese and French with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.

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