1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Demonlover August 8, 2019
ike the bulk of big-business-world-set thrillers, Demonlover, by Olivier Assayas, makes the case that criminally and sometimes-violently cutting ethical corners to get ahead is the sort of thing that can flag down karma as if it was a cab. The differences with this movie, which is more Videodrome (1983) than Wall Street (1987), all lie in narrative subversions and structural troublemaking. Rather than orbit around
brightly dressed yuppies sweating over stocks, it concerns people who work for darker, more eccentric corporations. The ones depicted in this film specialize in the creation of three-dimensional anime porn (known to its fans as hentai) and, as revealed later in the movie, password-locked torture websites that’d probably be grouped alongside snuff stations advertised on the TOR network.
The feature appears to be formatted like any old financial drama. But Assayas, more than anything, is interested in mimeographing how corporate thrillers look and feel, not affect. Little about it makes sense. And then, around the time the movie gets to its halfway point, it starts making even less sense. It audaciously and fairly completely tosses comprehensibility into a bin and instead goes for surrealism capped by an ironic twist.
Demonlover stars Connie Nielsen, a wunderkind actress who can speak eight languages, as Diane, an executive at the Volf Corporation. Currently, she's in the process of acquiring the rights to distribute the hentai features of a studio called TokyoAnime. Diane is a cobra. Secretly, she's working as an undercover agent for a company called Mangatronics, which is trying to sabotage the dealings of another company focused on in the film, Demonlover.
As the film opens, Diane poisons (and then subsequently takes the place of) her boss, Karen (Dominique Raymond), by injecting a deadly serum into her travel-sized Evian on a commercial flight. Later, she tries to kill off a Demonlover head (Gina Gershon) after first breaking into the latter’s hotel room and attempting to steal her data. Most of the time, Diane is challenged by Karen’s old assistant, Elise (Chloë Sevigny), who immediately suspects that her new boss's professional gains have nothing to do with meritocracy.
Assayas has tried, and succeeded, with the same sort of look-and-feel valuing style Demonlover goes for before. In Irma Vep, his feature about movie-making from 1996, the plot was as stretchy as galaxy goo. It was so often subjected to Assayas’ mischief, for better or for worse, that there came a moment when we couldn’t help but meet the truth that discerning between fantasy and reality was impossible with a grin. InClouds of Sils Maria (2015), a clever and eerie riff on All About Eve (1950), the smoggy ending suggested that everything we’d been taking in was at worst made up, at best a delusion. Yet that added to its enigmatic draw. And in Personal Shopper (2017), which saw the filmmaker reuniting with Clouds star Kristen Stewart, the supernatural may or may not have been tinkering around with the latter’s stability. The vagueness haunted.
I liked being vulnerable to the jests of these movies; I wanted to deliberate over Assayas’ ideas in the after hours. In metafictional movies like Irma Vep, always sticking around was the suspicion that the film itself and the film being made in the film might at some point merge in ways I couldn't quite explain. Clouds gets progressively but still subtly dubious in terms of how “real” it is. So I was prepared to fall into the deepest and darkest annals of the rabbit hole it created once I became certain that the ground really was about to break beneath me. Personal Shopper was masterfully uncanny from the start, and it had a lead who made me want to stick with Assayas no matter where his caprices went.
Demonlover doesn’t work over its viewers the same way. Although a little into the first act it became apparent to me that Assayas was just cloning the stylistic elements of financial thrillers and that’s all, the movie seemed to be a bit too much about something. (In this case how the number of people becoming desensitized to screen violence is increasing as our entertainment gets less tactful and more sensationalistic.) So there was no way it could be acceptably unintelligible. And when the unintelligibility reaches the high heavens a little past the first hour, Assayas offers nothing to clear up the fog of tedium. If the movie had a more singular visual presentation, or had a snakier lead we’d more or less get off on seeing make bad à la Tom Ripley, the nonsensicality might end up being complementary. But the film, though nicely manicured — it’s almost lacquered-looking — is mostly flatly shot. And Nielsen, though admirable, is so impenetrable that she's uninteresting. Assayas, granted, provides her character no inner life or distinguishable motivations, world views. Faring better are the always-compelling Sevigny, who begins the film as a flicker and ends it something of a personified bonfire, and Gershon, who, being all teeth, smug looks, and smarm reminded me a lot of her scene-stealing character in 1995’s accidentally (or maybe not accidentally) risible Showgirls.
There’s a scene toward the middle of Demonlover where Diane and Elise go for a drive. Diane is behind the wheel. Elise, who has thus far proclaimed on many an occasion that she hates Diane’s guts, is in the passenger seat. Small talk barely materializes before Elise, whose face is frozen in a scowl, pulls a pistol out. She looks like a gun moll.
She then demands Diane head into a parking garage. After grabbing a ticket, the latter is forced to drive down and down and down until she and her newly intimidating companion get to the bottom floor. Once they get there, Diane stops the car in the middle of the road. Elise makes her rev the engine again and again — to a point where we wonder if this is going to turn into a murder-suicide. Is this revenge? Elise's theatrics prove themselves a long-winded red herring. Elise fires the gun and reveals it wasn’t loaded. She mutters something about only wanting to scare Diane and that’s it, then runs away like a relieved, post-lion-chase gazelle.
This sequence doesn’t make a lick of sense, and it doesn’t add anything to the movie. But it at least summarizes what it’s like to watch Demonlover. It’s a film made up of a bunch of episodes like this one — ones that seem like they’re heading somewhere — perhaps even somewhere satisfying — but end up being useless, illogical, hollow. Demonlover is all promise and provocation sitting on top of air. C-