by Michael Kurhajetz
The world’s first avant garde video game film is still just a video game movie.
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When Demonlover begins with Connie Nielsen poisoning a colleague, I thought it was on the right track; a little corporate backstabbing among hot actors is always fun. But director Olivier Assayas’ talent and ambition don’t allow for a simple game of cat and mouse, and it ends up derailing the picture.
Assayas does a good job of drawing out the tension in the above situation, leaving the audience guessing loyalties, questioning motives, and looking for deeper meaning in subtle details and misdirections. Is Hervé (Charles Berling) in on it with Diane (Nielsen) or is he just figuring out how to use the knowledge to get her into bed? What about Elise (Chloë Sevigny)—did she want her boss out of the way, too, for making her sit in coach from Tokyo to Paris? And why did Diane do it in the first place—just to speed her rise within the company, or something even more nefarious? Had Assayas followed a more conventional storyline, he might have ended up with a solid, albeit formulaic, thriller. It’s hard to go wrong with all these beautiful and talented actors and a premise like this, as ripe with possibility as Gina Gershon’s lips are ripe with collagen.
But Assayas doesn’t do conventional. He challenges conventional narrative techniques to give us a surreal vision of our global society fueled by spectacle. And what I mean by that is: the story doesn’t make any damn sense after about 45 minutes. Several people left the theater in my screening (and it merits mentioning that this was a room full of people paid to, or assigned to, watch this movie. Those who didn’t leave began sighing. Loudly.) Assayas’ experience writing for the intellectual French film magazine Cahiérs du Cinéma during the 80’s informs his work now. He leans toward the experimental in all of his filmmaking—this means he takes risks for art’s sake and doesn’t feel compelled by the constraints of casual entertainment. Experimentation isn’t bad, but the half-assed experimentation we get here detracts clarity from the story and leaves the artistic message jumbled.
After Diane puts her boss in hospital and takes over the vacated position, we learn that Diane’s company, VolfGroup, is working to merge with Demonlover.com, a successful distributor of animated porn. Doing due diligence on Demonlover, Diane discovers a secret interactive torture site that Demonlover is also running on the sly, and it threatens to wreck the deal. But this could all just be manipulation by Diane, who may be working as a spy for a competitor, sent in to bring these companies down. Assayas has set this story in motion and could easily explore our society’s complicated relationship with consumer spectacle (like increasingly shocking reality television and gruesomely violent video games) that is insatiable at the same time that it is apathetic, while staying within the confines of a traditional narrative. Instead he lets it spin out of control.
There are nonsensical subplots introduced and absurd character personality shifts and shocking stylistic inconsistencies that derail the film once the torture web site is found, without any explanation or motivation. Everything seems suddenly to have gone awry. There is some cinematic precedence for this; David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive comes to mind, but even that kept the audience in the game, pulling them along on Lynch’s surreal journey with stylistic and tonal consistency. In Demonlover, though, the characters hadn’t been built on any solid or deftly crafted foundation to begin with.
Flimsy characterizations and schizophrenic stylization could be a shrewd ploy to make the film mimic the video game and internet culture it is commenting on, but something is lost in the translation from screen to audience. Three times characters say how icy Diane is; is that humor, or just bad writing? All we know about Hervé is that he’ll sleep with anything that’s remotely willing. We’re not emotionally invested in these characters, so when they start doing things that make no sense based on what’s come before and when the film stock and camera movement stop looking anything like the first half of the film, it seems less like a conscious artistic choice than it seems like sloppy filmmaking.
If you’re willing to look hard enough (and read what Assayas has to say in the press kit) there are some interesting messages to be found here. What Diane must overcome in order to advance her career and get through the obstacles brought on by the discovery of the torture site become increasingly convoluted and treacherous—getting through life begins to look a lot like advancing through levels of a video game. Diane even dresses like a superhero/action figure. There is also a shot of a kid doing homework, the pornographic torture web site plays on his nearby computer, but he’s completely oblivious even though he just stole his dad’s credit card to gain access to the site. Comparing our daily striving to a video game, and portraying us as wasteful and jaded consumers are provocative statements, but it takes a lot of patience to siphon them from this morass.
It’s too bad that such an appealing and talented cast is squandered here. The actors are all good, but their performances exist in a vacuum. Gina Gershon gets less than 10 minutes of screen time, but brings a casual toughness and a sexy confidence to the role of the quick-thinking Demonlover executive pitted against Nielsen. Chloe Sevigny learned French to play an unappreciated and mysterious admin assistant who can’t stand her new boss. Like Ms. Gershon, Chloë Sevigny doesn’t get much to do, but proves she can range from disaffected to annoyed to enraged with the best of them. As Hervé, Mr. Berling has the most fun in the movie, portraying Ms. Nielsen’s amoral and lascivious colleague with wry delight. And there’s Connie Nielsen who gets points for the most physically and emotionally challenging role. Nielsen’s Diane has the most stunts and fights and climbing and chasing—she could definitely play Lara Croft when Angelina Jolie gets tired of it. But Diane is also the emotional touchstone of the film, and Nielsen is able to find the humanity and humility behind the chilly, overbearing facade. It’s unfortunate that her character’s arc is nonexistent and that the story is taken away from all this talent halfway through.
Demonlover would have been more enjoyable if Assayas had focused more on a consistent direction. He could have had a strong B-movie thriller if he’d stuck to his story, or he could have pulled together an interesting avant garde art film exploring our spectacle-driven consumer culture. Instead, we get a mish-mash that doesn’t fully succeed on either level.
Michael Kurhajetz could really go for some squash right about now.
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