Can a movie that misses its mark also be deemed a triumph? Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, the French film “Demonlover” is a nominal thriller about life, death, greed and video games as well as the raptures of fast cars, shiny boots, tight clothes, dirty sex, thunderous guitar chords and heart-poundingly beautiful cinematography. It’s an exasperating, irresistible, must-see mess of a movie about life in the modern world and so very good that even when its story finally crashes and burns the filmmaking remains unscathed.
The intricately plotted screenplay blends Restoration drama with pulp and speculative fiction and moves at breakneck speed. Shortly after landing at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, Karen (Dominique Reymond), an executive for a cryptic French corporation called VolfGroup, is whisked away by a pair of thugs who steal her briefcase and lock her in the trunk of her car, where she almost dies. Her ambitious younger colleague Diane (Connie Nielsen) is subsequently tapped to take her place and instantly begins crossing swords with yet another executive, Herve (Charles Berling), and Karen’s assistant, Elise (Chloe Sevigny). Intrigue and a trip to Japan follow -- as do pornographic animation, shoe-shopping and bloody murder.
There’s more, much more, to “Demonlover,” including an interactive online torture site called the Hell Fire Club and, more wittily, Gina Gershon, as an American executive in a clingy T-shirt that reads “I (HEART) Gossip.” Two of the most salacious pieces of the puzzle, the online site and Gershon’s character, are central to the cutthroat wheeling and dealing that gives “Demonlover” the veneer -- if not the requisite mechanics -- of a corporate thriller. In basic outline, the thriller part of the movie pivots on the efforts of the VolfGroup executives to buy a Japanese outfit that’s developed an ultra-violent, sexually explicit 3-D animation. The French want what the Japanese have to offer, but there are complications, most notably in the form of a competing video-game company.
Yet if “Demonlover” takes off like a thriller it soon evolves into something quite different. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that the corporate machinations aren’t meant to be the real focus but a means to a complex end. There are, it turns out, two Dianes working the VolfGroup corridors: the executive with the all-business mien and the double agent with the secret agenda. As the executive dashes about taking meetings and the double agent makes out like a white-collar bandit, the film’s carefully constructed world begins to shift into a less realistic register. The action picks up, as does the sense of fantasy. By the time Diane is burning rubber in a car chase she no longer looks like a player; rather, just like Lara Croft, she looks like she’s being played.
Assayas isn’t the first filmmaker to use video games and virtual reality as plot devices or even the first filmmaker to employ them as a philosophical launch pad. David Cronenberg tried something similar a few years ago in his gloomy thriller “eXistenZ.” But unlike Cronenberg, who couldn’t make the real world palpable in that film (he did better with “Videodrome,” to which this film owes plenty), Assayas isn’t interested in technology for technology’s sake. There’s no question that he gets off on neato gadgets and the eerie glow of a computer monitor in a dark room. But what he’s really interested in is how these new visual technologies affect us as people -- how they get into our heads and bodies, and how they change our relationship to the world around us.
It’s no accident that the characters in “Demonlover,” whether they’re in the office, at home or hurtling through the air thousands of feet above the Earth, are often seen staring into television screens and computer monitors. Indeed, the first shot in the film is of sleeping airplane passengers who, tucked into their first-class berths, are oblivious to the apocalyptic images streaming on the overhead monitors. Like the rest of us, these characters are bobbing along in a never-ending, ever-replenishing stream of imagery. Like us, they live in a world in which the picture never shuts down, turns off or fades to black. And like us, the sleepers may not be guilty -- they may not have literally set the fires raging on their monitors -- but, Assayas suggests, neither are they entirely innocent.
For Assayas, movie-making isn’t simply about beautiful images and novel stories; it’s an epistemology -- a way of understanding movies and, by extension, a way of understanding the world. The same goes for movie watching. If that sounds like the makings of a dry intellectual exercise, the work itself is anything but academic. A former film critic, Assayas likes his visual pleasures. He may want to know why some images turn us on -- why our skin tingles, our hearts pound -- but he also enjoys making us swoon. He tends to cast incredible beauties, and his visual style is ravishing; there are few filmmakers alive who capture the here and now with such vibrant urgency. In fact, one of the ironies of this film is that its world of shadowy intrigue -- swirling with dehumanizing violence -- looks exceedingly seductive.
Given that “Demonlover” is about the politics and morality of images, the film’s glamorous violence creates something of a problem for Assayas. It isn’t just that he loves his villains too much -- they’re so cool -- it’s that he can’t make the genre work for him the way he wants. A murder scene that veers from the grotesque to the risible is particularly damaging to the film not only because Assayas squeezes some cheap laughs out of the mayhem, but also because all the blood threatens to overwhelm his critique. But if that scene seems to indicate that Assayas himself has become just another merchant of soul-stealing and brain-deadening imagery, the film’s fist-to-the-gut finale proves otherwise. The movie ends, the game keeps going.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Intense violence, sex, nudity, adult language.
An Elizabeth Films production, M6 Films co-production, with the participation of TPS Cinema, M6, released by Palm Pictures. Writer-director Olivier Assayas. Producers Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli. Director of photography Denis Lenoir. Set design Francois Renaud LaBarthe. Sound Philippe Richard. Editor Luc Barnier. Original music by Sonic Youth. In English, and subtitled French and Japanese. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.