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Demonlover (Oliver Assayas, 2002)
For the first half of its running time, Oliver Assayas’ cyber-thriller Demonlover plays like a slick spy flick staffed by an unusually empowered cast of women. Instead of the generic government secrets that motivate the characters in the average James Bond rip-off, however, the commodity at stake here is the monopolization of the Japanese hentai (animated pornography) industry. That particular MacGuffin seems fundamentally at odds with the film’s considerable dose of feminine empowerment, but throughout these early scenes, it’s difficult not to notice that the idealized women running around are fetish items themselves, dressing in sexy outfits as they get into catfights and engage in elaborate corporate espionage. These women are acting out male fantasies as they challenge each other in the boardroom, the racquetball court, and the bedroom, since everything that they do somehow helps one of the companies that are competing to become the world leader in the objectification of women. In that paradox, Assayas finds a reason for a radical stylistic shift in the second half of the film, which occurs when the film’s heroine - the ball breaking Diane (Connie Nielsen) - loses control of her situation and becomes a victim herself.
Early on, with his typical close proximity to his actors, the director casts the movie in glitz, showering everything in swanky neon lights while fixating on polished surfaces and hard bodies. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the actresses, and Connie Neilsen in particular, are presented as sexy, lithe caricatures of empowered women. Suddenly, with the end of Diane’s illusory sense of power, much of the first half’s slickness dissipates. Her character stops wearing her tight outfits and makeup, and as Assasyas starts exploring seedy underside of the porn industry, the lush neon interludes that energized the early scenes bow out. This move forces the viewer to come to terms with their readiness in accepting the ease with which the empowerment in the first half was presented. That the women were originally held as equals by the movie should have seemed anachronistic considering the subject matter, but Assayas’ flattering camera tricks manage to mask the inherent depravity with pretty lights and colors at first. He attempts to make his audience pay for any enjoyment that they had at Diane’s expense by subjecting her to a series of tortures that strip her of power and dignity. Perhaps, this extremism is not the most gratifying or subtle way for Assayas to make his points about the exploitation of women in cinema (probably typified best by the Tomb Raider style action hero), but his polemic becomes tough to miss because of it. There are flashes of genuine wit in the presentation of his females (Chloe Sevingy plays a character with a daughter that such an arbitrary token that she remains off-screen, for example), and that keeps the film from feeling at all didactic, but all the same, one wishes that he had a more varied take on the roles of women in action cinema that the dichotomy that’s set up.
Demonlover’s style makes its relative lack of ideas more than forgivable, and it clearly has more to say that any spy film I’ve seen recently, so perhaps my disappointment with its content has more to do with the exceptionally high quality of his usual output than the deficiencies of this film. Assayas clearly has his finger on the pulse of “right now” here, even though he’s essentially channeling David Cronenberg’s cult classic Videodrome, and every major theme of the film feels relevant, particularly the inherent observation that the world of the foreign film is becoming increasingly multicultural. By casting French, Danish, American, and Japanese actresses in his film about the power struggle between suits from several different countries, nationalism seems to fade into the shadow of corporate interests. Maybe this point was better made in Assayas’ Irma Vep (which is referenced here in a wonderful burglary sequence), but it’s perhaps more relevant a few years later. In any case, as the thinking person’s spy thriller, Demonlover delivers. Its fierce determination in deconstructing the sexual politics that are so often taken for granted in this sort of film provide more thrills than the average Bond outing.
* * * 1/2