France (129 mi) 2002 d: Olivier Assayas
France (129 mi) 2002 d: Olivier Assayas
Something of an artistic retort to the plodding, classical French tradition of his previous period costume drama Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000), which was almost a caricature of a French production, Assayas follows that with a cyber thriller that captures a startlingly contemporary look at the modern globalized world. It’s a remarkable film with awesome power, truly creepy, and brilliantly conceived, where the film has a spectacular look to it, often leaving one bewildered and enthralled at the same moment, with the capacity to genuinely shock audiences. It received a chilly reception at Cannes from French critics and then bombed at the box office, causing Assayas to make 10-minutes of cuts from his original print that have never been restored. And while the controversial subject matter includes a gladiator style corporate struggle to gain control of a Japanese 3-D porn website, while also controlling the X-rated comic book industry, Assayas has further censored some of his X-rated animé sequences in order to obtain an R-rating, intentionally blurring or pixilating the genital areas. Actually, the censorship on display in a film that explores the extreme reach of the Internet, is a puzzler, as it’s originally designed to shock the audiences with the graphic nature of the images, which of course, are then toned down—all part of the befuddlement. Another surprise, especially as the years progress, is how much any film that focuses on the latest developments in the computer world is going to be outdated almost immediately, as that’s the one industry that is advancing into the future in leaps and bounds, making much of this experience resemble the equally outdated TRON: Legacy in 3D at IMAX (2010), a follow up to a 1982 film, where the state of the art features (at the time) already appear old-fashioned. Nonetheless, the film has a sleek, futuristic design as clean and sterile as the paranoid conspiracy movies of the 1970’s, where most of the film takes place in common areas of transience, like airplanes, airports, hotels, restaurants, cars, modern offices, or night clubs, all featuring spacious and luxurious accommodations.
Assayas is one of the few artists that examines the extreme effects of the Internet, which includes not only desensitizing, but dehumanization, combining the deep-seeded ramifications of this soulless Internet entity to the ruthless nature of capitalism. From the very outset, the first images we see are in a luxury first class area of an airplane, reminiscent of similar scenes by Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but what’s different is that none of the passengers are paying any attention to the TV monitors that are a constant barrage of fire and explosions. In fact throughout the film, irrespective of how vile or horrific the material is found on Internet porn sites or seen on TV (where we even see President George W. Bush on CNN), no one seems the least bit affected by it and displays little reaction. What Assayas then proceeds to do is create a fast-paced, modernistic thriller that establishes original themes of corporate espionage, back room deals, cutthroat capitalistic competitiveness before delving into the mysteries of virtual reality through Internet connections, where the audience is dragged into a sadistic torture porn website that literally becomes the new nightmarish reality, as we’ve literally entered into an alternate mindset. The casualness with which Assayas manages to make this transition is a bit awesome, as the viewers initially have no idea how they got there. But that is the ease of the Internet, which is simply a series of clicks and you are there. How long you stay there is completely up to you. Assayas beautifully sets this all up with his cinema of detachment and distance, exquisitely filmed by Denis Lenoir, where the characters themselves couldn’t be more sterile and empty than the blood-sucking, corporate world where they work, an investment company that seems to squeeze all the life out of the major players, where the film follows the statuesque and robot-like Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen), seen sabotaging someone’s drink to keep them out of the game for awhile, quickly stepping into their shoes where she has more influence. Little do we know she’s a spy working for another company, sent there to undermine their effectiveness.
Diane’s dispassionate nature makes it hard to empathize, where in a futuristic setting like Blade Runner (1982) she would be a completely programmed robot (or replicant) sent to carry out a company’s mission, a completely disposable entity void of any human compassion. Initially this is the mindset she conveys, where there is little difference between her business and private life, never revealing her real character, as she is an amorphous mask. She works for Hervè, Charles Berling, completely unrecognizable from his compassionate priest portrayal in Les Destinées Sentimentales, as here he plays a corporate brute, a hard-drinking, sex-driven, chauvinistic business executive used to the finer things in life and getting what he wants, so if Diane works for him, he expects sexual reciprocity. This, of course, puts her at a distinct disadvantage, where the complexity of the situation is balancing her secret spy mission with maintaining a professional demeanor, always having to remain an inscrutable asset to the company. So she has to perform in the bedroom and the boardroom. The film is a continuing series of back room dirty crosses, where in this world, no one is to be trusted. Enter Chloë Sevigny as Elise, who’s an equally slippery character, but one with excellent behind-the-scenes connections. When seen on her own, she’s naked in her hotel room bed furiously playing video games like some hot-wired adolescent teen, but she’s on to Diane, who first has to survive a catfight with Gina Gershon, an American porn distributor for a company called Demonlover that wants to buy the rights of a major Japanese animè producer in order to annihilate all competition. Diane’s job is to sabotage any deal, but is undermined by Elise, who has Diane kidnapped and drugged, forcing her into becoming a submissive work slave, making her do whatever she tells her. This loss of power and loss of identity coincides with the discovery of a particularly sadistic interactive torture website, the Hell Fire Club, where Diane’s weakened vulnerability leaves her subject to an altered reality, a terrifying underworld secretly run by the Russian mafia that is accessible via the Internet to ordinary suburban households and their consumer habits. Assayas scores the film with original music from Sonic Youth, which becomes especially impressive as Diane loses control, where the music literally takes her place where by the end all we hear is the music raging.
We were all weaned on the corrupt business practices of THE GODFATHER (1972, 1974), where a mobster betrays his mafia family and sells him out to another crime family, as this was all routine in the ways of business and capitalism, eventually replaced by corporate takeovers, where Assayas examines this supposedly faceless world of globalization and corporate mergers, all but obliterating any sense of personal loyalty. DEMONLOVER is ultimately a nightmarish fantasy about the moral abyss of big business, beholden to no one but itself, ruthlessly wiping out all competitors in an attempt to build a monopoly as the ultimate goal. Assayas is right on the money in trying to pinpoint just who's running the world here, just a bunch of loner, blood-sucking vampires that buy and sell sex, behind the scenes creeps that would just as soon kill someone as lose money,. Obviously it's all about power, power, POWER, and those that have it, don't keep it forever. Eventually, through a series of betrayals and murders, à la Richard III, he who was once top cock on the block becomes yesterday’s news in this corporate chessboard game where multiple pieces are ruthlessly sacrificed so that ONE body, only ONE business, can stay ahead of the game. Intriguing from start to finish, despite the inherent creepiness of the characters, all of whom resemble replicants, where one can’t help but think that at any time they were going to pull their masks off and underneath would be mutant, flesh-eating reptiles. Apalled by how easily sadism has crept into the modern age, Assayas melds personal greed and ambition with an oppressive murk of suppressed paranoia that can't stop itself from feeding on new blood, new dollars, with rampant consumerism effectively portrayed here as ever new indulgences of the flesh, particularly the sado-masochistic variety, with the Russian mafia dominating the field of international corporate terrorizers, where nothing stands in their way, certainly not the age-old laws of supply and demand, where only the most brutally ruthless survive, and survive they do, like chameleons, like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956, again 1978), blending right into the best neighborhoods—simply an outrageous vision.
DEMONLOVER is also a continuation of an improvisational style that began with Irma Vep (1996), both filmed very quickly in a painterly style, as if using brush stokes to quickly advance the material as hastily as possible. The film bombards you with an explosion of surface sensualities, much of it degrading, yet the characters are wearing the latest fashions, drive the most expensive cars, and represent the consumer age like there's no tomorrow, so why not add sex and corporate espionage as one and the same thing. Fuck before you get fucked. It's like political negative ads. They're ugly, they're demeaning, they're filled with lies, but they work. The film language is unbelievably expressive, very painterly, as Assayas pointed out in the Q & A afterwards, and in his view his best effort so far in making the screen look and feel like he creates in his head, with an underlying sound language that's equally hypnotic, providing layer after layer of more than what most people can actually comprehend or endure, much of it told with lightning quick, rapid fire imagery that accentuates the violence all around us. Assayas indicated this is how he views television imagery, commercial films or advertisements. They're just an assault on your senses that urge you to consume, consume, consume, and just be a slave to the wishes of commerce, with no moral accompaniment, no balance of power, all power is in the hands of the entrepreneurs. They are non-stop money machines with absolutely no moral conscience. Assayas indicated he attempted to make a subversive film, subverting the interests of commerce by utilizing their methods, and uses commercial film techniques to lull the viewer into what he wants them to consider.