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Demonlover (2002)
Writer and director: Olivier Assayas

review by Tony Lee

Cronenberg's archetypal horror-show Videodrome featured blonde icon Debbie Harry apparently tortured on TV screens for the viewing 'pleasure' of protagonist Max (James Woods). Twenty years later, William Malone's barely coherent FearDotCom showcased a watered down variant of 'snuff' entertainment for Internet consumers. Interactive S&M online seems to be the inevitable future of hardcore cyber-porn. Shot in English, French and Japanese (with English subtitles) and benefiting from a beguiling score by Sonic Youth, Demonlover comes from the director of the overtly stylised Irma Vep. Despite some adverse critical reactions, Olivier Assayas' extraordinarily perceptive character study of women in control (or women being controlled), overcomes any viewers' initially baffled reservations about its lack of obvious narrative logic, especially on second viewing, and this often dazzling film is one of the most underrated Euro-Asian psychological thrillers of the decade.

What begins as a story of routine industrial espionage in the 21st century steadily develops into an examination and meditation upon the disturbing, complex roles that sex and violence have to play in the global media marketplace. Coldly ambitious Diane (a fascinating performance from Danish actress Connie Nielsen - of Gladiator, Mission To Mars, Basic) ousts rival exec Karen (Dominique Reymond) from the leading management position on a project to secure a virtual world monopoly on adult anime. Her colleague Hervé (Charles Berling) approves of Diane's promotion, from within the ranks of French deal brokers Volf (Jean-Baptiste Malartre portrays the boss, though he's barely involved in the main plot), but she is stymied at first by romantic entanglements and office politics. Behind the scenes, it's her outspoken assistant Elise (Chloë Sevigny, American Psycho) who knows more about what's really going on between two opposing Japanese animation houses, even before the American corporate agents, led by Elaine (Gina Gershon, Showgirls, Bound, Face/Off, Driven, Prey For Rock & Roll) enter the big picture. During her cat burglar exploits, Diane is forced to kill someone, yet she's also left unconscious after the fight, and wakes up to find that all evidence of her crime has disappeared. Who organised this cover-up, and what do they really what from the increasingly distraught Diane? That's only the start of a frequently bewildering number of puzzles and questions (few of which can be addressed by this review) that viewers will doubtless ponder as the conventional plotline segues - quite inexplicably - into something altogether more surreal...

Assayas' deeply tragicomic leanings are startling in both aspect and affect. Demonlover resolutely defies viewers' expectations and dramatic standards by providing no comforting explanations for those in need of reassurance that our heroine will escape, or at least survive. After upsetting all the 'wrong' people by hacking into a forbidden 'Hellfire Club' website, the unwary Diane is kidnapped and subjected (perversely, off screen) to a systematic ordeal of drug abuse and tortures. She looks thoroughly broken by this sadomasochistic experience when she returns to work, at an office now run by the mysterious Elise. There's palpable fetishistic eroticism in the following scenes, as Diane is escorted to another nightmare, where she's held prisoner while dressed in an 'Emma Peel' style cat-suit, and gamely fights her way out of captivity. Is this just another weird action in a cyber-sex damnation game? Can Diane ever truly escape, or is she (much like Patrick McGoohan's 'Number Six' in the Village), trapped in an inhumanly sinister 'birdcage' seemingly of her own making?

Glossily mesmeric, peculiarly anonymous, eager to jettison rationality, counterbalancing everyday mundanity (credit cards, board meetings) with exotic glamour (fast edits of intoxicating imagery), Demonlover is annoyingly imprecise and yet it's overloaded with tantalisingly subtextual meanings (a recklessly unfocussed critique of sociopathic corporations and/or a headlong rush into garishly wondrous oblivion?). It's essential viewing for anyone who enjoyed Mulholland Drive, eXistenZ, or Wenders' superbly enigmatic Until The End Of The World (1991).

The two-disc director's cut release has the main feature in anamorphic widescreen at ratio 1.85:1 (enhanced for 16:9 TVs), with a choice of Dolby digital DTS 6.1, Surround 5.1, or 2.0 soundtracks and subtitles in English or Spanish. The second disc boasts over two and a half hours of bonus material, including the 57-minute featurette Making Of Demonlover directed by Yorick Le Saux, interviews with stars Connie Nielsen, Charles Berling, Chloë Sevigny, and director Olivier Assayas. There's also an interesting Q&A session with Assayas, a 'making-of' spot about the music by Sonic Youth, and some hidden footage of the agreeably notorious Hellfire Club.
Demonlover

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