Stop Making Sense

Film still for Stop Making Sense

Olivier Assayas' cyperfiction Demonlover astounds then falls apart, says Jonathan Romney. It's a deliberate ploy, Assayas tells David Thompson. Plus Power Games, an interview with Olivier Assayas.

The romantic French term film maudit - 'damned film' - denotes those works which have somehow fallen foul of destiny: recut against their makers' wishes, buried by distributors, or simply misunderstood. Olivier Assayas' Demonlover is a definite candidate for the epithet, in the sense of being critically ill received, yet there is also something more literally maudit in the equation - as its title suggests, Assayas' film attempts to conjure up something of the demonic nature of contemporary experience, and indeed of contemporary cinema itself.

Demonlover had a rough reception when it premiered at Cannes in 2002, with booing at the press show and some harsh reviews. My own review, I must admit, was largely negative. Writing from immediate response in a trade daily - filing copy within a couple of hours of watching the film - I said I found Demonlover extremely disappointing, especially given the tantalising brilliance of its first hour. Like most critics I worried about the film's apparent collapse into incoherence, about its seemingly compromised fascination with the digital-age glamour it seeks to dissect, and about its over-conscious effort to be hip. The film's cyberpunk sleekness, its score by NY art-core doyens Sonic Youth (glassily contemplative guitar echoing Howard Shore's music for David Cronenberg's Crash), and Assayas' casting of US indie princess Chloë Sevigny all suggested an eager courting of the Now - a reaction, perhaps, to the accusations of over-decorousness that greeted Assayas' previous film, the costume drama Les Destinées sentimentales (2000).

Some of this appraisal I still stand by, though I'd want to modify it. Many of the things that troubled me about Demonlover in Cannes have continued to trouble me, in the sense that the more I read about and discussed the film, the more I wanted to see it again. I thought at first that the film might have been one of those Cannes-premiered disasters that plague French directors - Carax, Kassovitz, Dumont - of whom great revelations are expected. Now I'd argue - and I hope this doesn't read like sophistry - that, rather than being a catastrophe, Demonlover is a film made in the catastrophic mode, with the conviction that a cinema truly attuned to our times can make sense only if it partakes of catastrophe, of a collapse of meaning. Demonlover's refusal to make sense becomes more understandable in the context of Assayas' own critical discourse on cinema's current situation. This discourse in turn makes particular sense in the context of his past as practitioner and former critic, and of French cinema's relationship to the world.

Hermetically glamorous

Meanwhile, why is Demonlover so perplexing? Kate Stables, reviewing the film on page 52, provides an accurate synopsis, yet while you watch it the film doesn't read nearly so coherently. Demonlover is ostensibly an international cyberthriller about industrial espionage. The main player is Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen), an executive working for the Paris-based Volf Corporation, engaged in negotiations with Japanese animation company TokyoAnime for world distribution rights. The deal also involves teaming up with American internet company Demonlover, which hopes the arrangement will enable it to wipe out its main competitor Mangatronics - for whom Diane secretly works as a double agent. Demonlover is apparently running the shady website Hellfireclub, which shows women tortured to order, following punters' fantasies.

After she accidentally kills Demonlover exec Elaine (a superbly acerbic Gina Gershon), Diane falls into the hands of the people behind the Hellfireclub and becomes one of their victims, locked in a dungeon. After a first sojourn in the cellar of a country château - a nod to the locus classicus of S&M porn, as in Story of O - Diane returns to work, but ends the film, after an escape and dramatic car chase, back in chains, this time playing the victim role in the costume of comic-book heroine Storm of X-Men. The film's final image - a twist ending, just as unpleasantly effective on a second viewing - shows Diane gazing helplessly out of the computer screen on the desk of a teenage boy somewhere in the American suburbs, her plight ignored while he does his physics homework.

Diane, who has used her game-playing skills to control the machine, has ended up literally imprisoned in it. And Demonlover, in a classic sense, is about control - interpersonal and financial - no less than, say, Wall Street (in another apparent reference in a scene at Volf Corporation we see something resembling the hyped-up trading floor of Oliver Stone's Wall Street or of the more recent Boiler Room). The film - with its mix of French and English dialogue - also plays on the ambiguous French word contrôler, which means 'to survey' or 'to verify' more commonly than 'to control'. Hence the emphasis on visual power, on the ability to control things by maintaining a coherent overview - something Assayas' viewer becomes increasingly unable to do.

Critics certainly wondered about Assayas' own narrative control. Demonlover seems perfectly coherent in the first half, composed with an energetic, rigorous stylisation that immediately establishes the feel of a hermetically glamorous world and keeps us contained within it. This containment is established in the first shot, where we see the Volf party returning on a deluxe night flight from Tokyo: most of the passengers are asleep, while a flight attendant passes up the gangway in cushioned silence. On screens suspended from the ceiling, an in-flight movie - silent, discontinuous images of explosions and violent chaos - flickers unwatched. We could almost be in the space shuttle in 2001: A Space Odyssey - the mood is of enclosure, of weightless, germ-free suspension.

Diane is first seen taking dictation from her boss Volf (Jean-Baptiste Malartre), a pensive, highbrow man who appears compassionate and decent but who gradually fades from the picture: an old-Europe business deity whose power vaporises before the ruthless, faceless 'demons' who control the new traffic of money and images. Her first act of betrayal is typically 'invisible' - the doping of a plastic pot of Evian which will incapacitate Volf's chief exec Karen (Dominique Reymond) and put Diane in her seat for negotiations with Demonlover.

Evian as a weapon: this conceit sets the tone. Even the look of the transparent plastic pot is a key-note for Diane's world, for which DoP Denis Lenoir has created a miasma of cool blue reflections, glass walls, deceptive transparency. This look defines Volf's offices as well as the scene at Paris Charles de Gaulle when the travellers arrive home.

Sprawling non-places

In the film's first half Assayas achieves his own updating of that French glossiness that in the 1980s was disparagingly dubbed the cinéma du look - except that here the sensuousness extends to sound and texture. Demonlover plays in an emotionally anaesthetised, dystopian mode that could be called 'steel-and-glass cinema': cinema set in the recognisably contemporary urban world but framed and shot in such a way that it becomes detached, not unreal so much as irreal, bordering on science fiction. The mother of such cinema is Godard's Alphaville (1965) while more recent examples include Lodge Kerrigan's underrated Claire Dolan, in which life is presented as a succession of transactions in glass boxes; Siegrid Alnoy's existential work-is-hell drama Elle est des nôtres; and Michael Winterbottom's more explicitly sci-fi Code 46, which shares Demonlover's image of the world as a sprawling non-place held together by a network of air terminals.

Assayas maps this world through both image and sound: the metallic whirr of a credit-card receipt, the heavenly-chorus start-up of a Powerbook. But there are more abrasive effects too, and it was these that struck a restless Cannes audience as excessive. There is the 2D anime the Volf delegation watch in Japan, where moppet ingenues are raped by tentacled demons. There is the relentlessly gory 3D material TokyoAnime is developing, with a tattooed Barbie-like dominatrix slicing predatory zombies in half. Then there is the fizzing electronic harshness of the Hellfireclub site, with its flash-cut shots of bondage and torture. At the Cannes screening these sequences seemed to go on forever, leaving the impression that Assayas was both assaulting us and labouring an obvious point. In fact, in the film's 120-minute release cut - five minutes shorter than the original - this material has been reduced, making Demonlover at once more smoothly watchable and more suggestively sinister.

But it is hard to dissociate this abrasiveness from the film's sleeker textures: Demonlover evokes a world where, literally, you have to take the rough with the smooth, both effects produced by the same mechanisms of sensory gratification. That's why we can't always tell whether Assayas is horrified or seduced by the images he shows - as if there has to be a difference. In the scenes at a febrile, colour-bombarded Tokyo club we can detect at once an aesthete's horror at the sensory overload and a cyberage hedonist's excitement.

Unstable libidos

This sense of indifferentiation is what makes the film at times so hard to read, especially in its take on character. Demonlover's people are, at different moments, cardboard cut-out glamour figures, blank interchangeable pawns in an espionage computer game and protean enigmas. We never quite know who they are: in this polyglot film it remains unclear whether Diane and Elise (Sevigny) are French or American (Nielsen, in fact, is Danish). Character here is merely a variation on the spy-story convention of no one being who they seem. The impassive Diane is seen early on as the office dragon lady, bossing about her underling Elise; later she becomes a put-upon ingenue, subservient to Elise in a barely explicable reversal. She also adapts her blank identity to a succession of interchangeable superfemme roles, both as a Hellfireclub captive (Emma Peel, Storm) and as a superspy (donning a cat-burglar suit to rob Elaine's hotel room). Elise switches from harassed nice-girl secretary (an echo of her role in American Psycho) to merciless, borderline-hysterical puppeteer, seemingly the nastiest figure in the Hellfireclub operation.

Assayas uses characters like functions in the computer games they play and sell. Sexualities also shift and libido loses all stability in a world that seemingly operates solely to gratify the libido. The one figure of stable sexuality - to an almost parodic degree - is Diane's macho colleague Hervé, played by a shaven-headed Charles Berling as an ambulant phallus. He's screwing interpreter Kaori (Abi Sakamoto) in Japan and hitting on Diane too. Back in Paris, she tests his reactions with the announcement she too has been sleeping with Kaori - but does this assumption of sexual fluidity mean anything or is it further masquerading? There's more play on Diane's sexuality when she seems to be transfixed first by lesbian porn on television then by the Hellfireclub site. Yet sexual mutability, voyeurism, a flirting with S&M danger seem as much as anything part of the dark glamour and racy airport-novel sensibility Assayas is playing with. These characters travel between identities and sexualities as they do between places.

This is, above all, a film about travel - travel being both motion and stasis, as in the in-flight opening shot. Going places means going nowhere: a sequence of breathtaking melancholy shows Kaori leaving the Volf delegation's hotel late at night, walking across a deserted lobby and out into an equally empty city. Characters move from country to country with disconcerting rapidity, the narrative shifting in a single cut from Paris to Tokyo and leaving us to locate ourselves. The feeling of placelessness parallels another recent story about disorientation in Tokyo, Lost in Translation. But Assayas' vision is more radically dislocating, with characters caught not just between east and west but between 'real' and 'virtual' worlds - Lost in Decryption.

Here is a world where geopolitics has been supplanted by the placeless topography of the internet, where no matter where you are you can access 'sites' that cater to and stimulate new consumer appetites. This is brilliantly evoked in a meeting where Elaine talks about the domain names her company has recently acquired: "mangasex, sexmanga, adultmanga, SMmanga, japanporno". These are the territories fought over by corporate nation states: the real-life computer-game giant Eidos, we learn, is pressing a $30 million lawsuit over the domain name Demonlover's saturation with names recalls the 'branded' world of fashion and celebrity in Bret Easton Ellis' novel Glamorama. But it also echoes David Cronenberg's Videodrome and eXistenZ, in which the world we think we know is really a limitless battlefield between rival media corporations and reality-subverting underground cells.

Brutal strangeness

It's once the film gets into its stride as a Cronenbergian nightmare, however, that the charge of incoherence arises. Demonlover is already sufficiently evocative of Cronenberg's total-war universe in its first hour, which shows a firm grasp of the mundane realities of image-trading and corporate cannibalism. But one hour in it turns into a mirror game of unrealities within unrealities reminiscent of computer-game nightmare eXistenZ. The turning point seems to be the moment when Diane, discovered raiding Elaine's room, kills her brutally with a piece of glass. Diane blacks out (as does the film) and wakes to find all evidence of the murder erased. Yet even before that point her cat-burglar escapade has signalled a leap into a less realistic mode, with Assayas referencing his own Irma Vep (1996), in which Maggie Cheung played the cat-suited reincarnation of Feuillade's silent-era femme fatale.

This radical turn should in theory make Demonlover more interesting, but in practice it becomes less so. Things simply seem to make less sense; characters' motivations and shifts of personality are hard to explain; the changes in tone are extreme and unsettling, not least when, after several scenes of rapid-fire intensity, Assayas gives us an eight-minute one-to-one between Diane and Hervé that conforms to most people's image of French cinema as two people discussing their relationship over dinner. But maybe that scene just serves to prepare us for the brutal strangeness of what follows: a sex scene where Hervé apparently rapes Diane twice before she reaches down for a gun by the bedside (echoes of Basic Instinct) and blows his brains out in a flurry of fast cuts. Cue Diane's screams, accompanying electronic shrieking on the soundtrack and an explosion of sparks before we cut to the mystifying final act.

As Assayas has explained in interviews, the film is meant to stop making sense. That may sound an outrageous cop-out, but Assayas has argued his corner persuasively, not least in a marathon Q&A with Mark Peranson in the Canadian magazine cinemascope (No.14, Spring 2003). "What I am trying to do is establish this post-Hitchcockian thriller mood, and then... I just blow the whole thing up... What I'm going to do is break this dramaturgic mode and dive into the subconscious of the characters."

Assayas also insists that "art at any moment is the putting into practice of theory", and Demonlover, I would argue, is the most theoretical film this former Cahiers du cinéma critic has yet made. You might say it works less as a film per se than as an argument, an intervention into the current debate on cinema's mutations. Assayas' most provocative statement in the Peranson interview is his attack on international independent cinema as being parochial and reassuring; he argues that the success of such films as Être et avoir and The Man without a Past lies in their appeal to nostalgia: "For a lot of people, cinema, and specifically independent cinema, is a world where they are protected from the complexity of today's society." Hence also his argument, on a panel at Rotterdam last year, that independent film-makers should be looking for inspiration to the more adventurous new Hollywood films, such as Fight Club - another dream-like adventure in cyberage irreality, which Demonlover echoes.

Cloud of uncertainty

It is highly provocative for a film-maker associated with the low-budget intimism of 'young French cinema' to argue that France should look to Hollywood at a time when many younger French directors are doing just that: Jan Kounen in his comic-book thugfest Dobermann and English-language mystic Western Blueberry; Mathieu Kassovitz with the studio psycho-thriller Gothika; and the hordes of Luc Besson acolytes who have made le Bessonisme an internationally marketable force. But Assayas' own polemic is radical and confrontational, representing a desire to drag French cinema into a new critical era. His aim is to dismantle the restrictive forms of classic Hollywood narrative and to explore the uncertainties and freedoms offered by the mindscape of the internet age: he wants independent film-making, he says, to enjoy the same freedom of form espoused in music by Radiohead, in literature by Don DeLillo.

Where, then, does this leave traditional drama-tic coherence of the sort seemingly jettisoned in the second hour of Demonlover? Under a cloud of uncertainty, as Assayas tells Peranson: "Because today's reality is becoming more and more complex to handle, somehow I think simplifying the world thro-ugh conventional dramaturgy is equal to cheating."

Demonlover is not the only recent French film to stake out a new relationship to mainstream cinema and to the French tradition of cinéma d'auteur. Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, Philippe Grandrieux's La Vie nouvelle, Bruno Dumont's twentynine palms and Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day all attempt to articulate a new language of extremity and demand to be appraised in terms of their debate with American cinema. All these films stand or fall on their own terms; but Demonlover, the most perplexing of the lot, only fully makes sense, I feel, when supported by Assayas' polemic. I suspect the film really comes alive when watched on DVD with his commentary - that is, when Demonlover becomes part of the media economy it questions. Demonlover manifestly doesn't 'work', but that's the point. Within the terms of Assayas' argument, a film that works would be the greatest catastrophe of all.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012