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Olivier Assayas’s demonlover (2002) is, in short (and I know this is going to sound awfully heavy-handed), an absolutely bleak and scathing critique of the pornographic body that is the global capital machine, a machine that continues to be patriarchal driven. Stunningly and eerily filmed, incorporating anime and internet pornography at its core, Assayas shows us a vicious opportunistic business world in which women’s chance for survival and success are only achieved by cannibalizing each other.
The film opens in a high-tech, high-powered business space filled with men shouting in phones and at each other in a sea of computers blinking with numbers and stats. This is a man’s world that we see in the opening shot of the movie. Then the movie shifts gears, and the rest of the film is about how women operate in the man’s world of global capital. We see women trying to take control over capital and more importantly the commodification of their bodies. Diane De Monx (Connie Nielsen) is at the center of the film, and her trajectory is both appalling, heart breaking, and utterly damning. An excellent counterpart to Tilda Swinton’s character Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton (2007), Diane is a ruthless, cold cyborg of a woman who will do anything to try to claw her way to the top of the business world. She steals trading secrets, drugs another female employee, and murders a competitor. When I say cyborg, I’m not too off the mark as the business that is being bartered in the film is pornographic anime and ultimately female torture, a business where women’s bodies are turned into artificial machines produced for mass consumption. The movie is spliced with graphic sexual anime pornography of women being fucked by machines and monsters. Certainly women are being fucked by machines and monsters – the machine of global capitalism and the monsters that are the men who drive the machine. The anime sex business content is the literal manifestation of the commodification of the female body and an allegoric representation of the pornographic matrix of global capital. In order to try to survive in this world and not just be pornographic profits, women become abominations cannibalizing each other to stay afoot. Interestingly, all the women in the movie are complicit in the sex torture business and find it alluring. When Karen (the woman Diane drugs at the beginning of the movie) finds Diane browsing the sex torture website, they both agree that they find it fascinating. What is not said is that by watching the women tortured on the internet, these women are somehow watching themselves and/or viscerally controlling their own bodies through others. Elise, on the other hand, actually orchestrates the torture of women (including Diane), the literalization of women cannibalizing each other to succeed.
When I say global capital, I am not speaking lightly. While Diane, the French woman is at the center of the film, there is also an American woman (fantastically played by Gina Gershon) and a slew of Japanese women, not to mention a quietly menacing Chloe Sevigny as the cut-throat Elise. The matrix of global capital is represented in this network of women and the men they work for. The mistake these women make, particularly Diane, is to think that they can control the system when ultimately the system still has control over them. When Diane is outed for her crimes, she is taken to the giant mansion of the old school patriarch who runs the business. He sits in his garden with his tribe of daughters and his wife while Diane is taken somewhere into the bowels of the house (e.g. the bowels of old school patriarchy). She emerges gutted. We don’t know exactly what happened to Diane, but we do know that she has been put back in her place as submissive and compliant female. Likewise, when she goes on a date with her co-worker Hervé, he ends up pretty much “date raping” her body, and she blows his brains out. Well she may off Hervé, but she certainly isn’t going to off the whole system of men in control of her body and of capital. In a horrifyingly bleak ending, Diane is captured and sold on the internet via a porn torture website, her body reduced to literal commodity to be abused and sold. It is not Diane’s body encased in black latex and chained to a metal bed frame that is the horrific sight in this scene. In fact, we’ve been expecting that to happen all along, and in a way that is where she has been all along in a metaphorical sense. The real horror is the young boy mindlessly using his parents’ credit card to pay for the torture of a woman, a taste for torture that he has developed via media itself. In the final bleak shot, the boy turns off the computer leaving Diane strapped to the bed waiting for his next command while he works on his math problems, a small gesture that indicates his enormous control over and disregard of the female body.
It’s interesting how the film uses the pornographic elements to mimic the perpetual tease of capital-driven commodity culture. Like capitalism itself, it functions like a coitus-interruptus, setting us up for some kind of delicious orgasmic satisfaction but always falling short of climax, provoking us to want more just like the capital machine perpetuates a state of dissatisfaction where the consumer always wants more and never fully gets/his her rocks off. Diane starts watching the porno in the hotel room, and we get all geared up for some enticing voyeuristic sex stuff, but then she gets interrupted before. It seems like she and Herve are going to have some massively hot kinky sex, but then when they finally “consummate” their relationship, he just basically rapes her in a missionary position penetration scene completely lacking in any erotic appeal. Likewise, when she logs into hellfire.com, we anticipate partaking in the taboo of porn torture, but then Karen interrupts her before we can really get a reaction from Diane. The only real sex scenes are the bizarre ones in the anime sequences. The film functions in a way like the false advertisement of consumer culture. It leads us to believe that the film will be loaded with kinky sex scenes, but then it withholds our pleasure. The sex appeal is in what is implied and promised but not in what’s actually delivered. And this is how commodity fetishism functions. What is promised is rarely actually delivered, so we are conditioned to desire more, newer, better products.
All of this is delivered via Assayas’s gorgeous cinematics. The interior spaces – hotels and corporations – are eerily sterile. They echo with a menacing emptiness. These buildings and spaces contain humans yet seem to be completely devoid of humanity. They buzz and hum with electricity that keeps the machine going and has replaced the human body. The integration of anime footage furthers this kind of isolation from actual flesh and blood. That these cartoon characters are seemingly the most alive beings in the film is unsettling. Much of that effect is achieved from the frenetic color-saturated anime scenes in juxtaposition to Assayas’ subdued and static view of the interior spaces the characters occupy. The film is also punctuated with a number of gorgeous night shots smeared with light and abstraction as Diane drives around Paris and reels out of control while she tries to maintain control in a system governed by men. All of this is scored by an original soundtrack composed and performed by Sonic Youth for the movie. The Sonic Youth score provides a kind of undersound of beautiful noise, a quietly saturating dissonance and an electric hum and buzz that carries us through the film.
All this may sound densely theoretical or absurdly over-read, but the content of the film definitely supports my argument. One could read the movie as a negative portrayal of women in business, but we need to look beyond that and see who is lurking behind the scenes. While the women are cutting each other’s throats as they try to claw their way to the top, in the end it is the men behind the scenes who are pulling the strings. demonlover is a powerful critique of patriarchy and capital encased in the body of present day global capital. Yes, in my opinion, it is profoundly leftist and feminist filmmaking, but it brings Old School Critiques of patriarchy and capitalism firmly into the 21st century. demonlover is brilliant, beautiful, and unsettling.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.