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Demonlover (2002)

Directed by:

Olivier Assayas

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 120 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

Country: France

The Volf Corporation, a vast French-based multinational, is finalising a contract to acquire the Japanese company TokyoAnimé, and is presiding over a cutthroat bidding war between webcompanies Demonlover and Mangatronics for the distribution rights to its product – a cutting-edge 3-D version of 'hentai', or violent pornographic animation. Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen), Volf's icy personal assistant, is in fact a double-agent for Mangatronics, using her underhanded ascendancy within the Volf Corporation to sabotage the bid of Demonlover. Except that Diane herself is being watched, and when her attempt to steal some computer files goes wrong, she rapidly finds herself entering a nightmarish hell of blackmail, degradation and much, much worse, as the sadomasochistic fantasies being peddled by Demonlover give way to a far grimmer reality.

Olivier 'Irma Vep' Assayas' film 'Demonlover' starts off as a stylish, if conventional, corporate thriller, cutting through the petty rivalries of office politics and the minutiae of international negotiations to expose a ruthless world where control is everything – but from about halfway through, this 'Cypher'-like plot of industrial espionage and double-dealings takes an unexpected, if in retrospect entirely logical, turn into darker territories, where the control freakery and humiliations which the Volf Corporation staff regularly mete out on each other assume a far more concrete, and disturbing, guise. Like 'Secretary', 'Demonlover' assimilates the power games of office hierarchies to bondage-and-domination fantasies – but far from being a quirky romantic comedy, 'Demonlover' moves quickly from boardroom intrigue to Sadean horror, and ends with a truly haunting image of utter helplessness transformed into a disposable commodity.

In 'Demonlover', it is only by rigorously masking their own identity that the female characters are able to attain any sort of power from their male masters, and the neutralisation and control of their power forms a basic part of male desire. That such a scenario should exist amongst pornographers will surprise no-one, but by conflating so seamlessly the worlds of pornography and big business, Assayas presents a far broader, more devastating feminist critique.

The sleek look of 'Demonlover', all matte veneers and glass reflections, its clinical settings (in airports, hotels and offices which seem interchangeable despite being in different continents), its inscrutably aloof characters, its multilingual conversations (in French, English and Japanese) conducted through interpreters, and even its heavily processed soundtrack by Sonic Youth, combine to dictate a tone of cool detachment, making everything seem alien – yet 'Demonlover' is not set in some science-fiction dystopia, but in a world all too recognisable as our own, so that the horror which finally confronts the viewer eye-to-eye through the screen's sterile surface (in a film obsessed with mirrors, movies and monitors) is all the more harrowing.

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It's Got: An exceptionally nuanced performance from Connie Nielsen, letting feeling occasionally flash through her icy exterior; a moody Sonic Youth soundtrack; muted, chilly settings; disorienting camerawork and editing; and a truly harrowing conclusion that only gets worse the more you think about it.

It Needs: To be avoided by those of a resolutely sunny disposition.

Alternatives:

8mm, Cypher, My Little Eye, Secretary, Videodrome

Summary

A bleak cyber-thriller that bids you to see through the glossy images on the screen's surface.

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