Heckled at its 2002 Cannes premiere, and dismissed ever since as arthouse Eurotrash, demonlover, Olivier Assayas’s sleazy, globe-trotting corporate-espionage thriller, wasn’t a film that this decade wanted; instead, it was the film the aughts deserved.
The story of mendacious, back-stabbing Parisian lawyers negotiating a deal to secure an international monopoly on pornographic anime, demonlover goes off the rails—way off the rails, according to admirers and detractors alike—near the one-hour mark, spiraling thereafter into violent incoherence. And yet the pileup of narrative gaps and contradictions that emerge in the third act were part of the point. Though Assayas lifted his more lurid conceits from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), the critic Charles Taylor pointed out at the time that the film’s real precursor was Howard Hawks's foreboding, famously nonsensical The Big Sleep (1946).
Released here in September of 2003, many of demonlover’s principle themes—the circulation of rumor, cyber escapism, office politics, torture and rendition—were already, or were soon going to be, our own. From the Kubrickian first shot of passengers asleep in an airplane’s business-class cabin to the final turn-of-the-screw scene set in an American suburban bedroom, demonlover examined the breakdown of the boundaries that used to separate our working hours from our private lives, indentifying the myriad ways by which late capitalist technology has colonized our hearts and minds along with our bodies. If that doesn’t sound wildly entertaining—which demonlover resolutely is—how about a bloody catfight between protagonist Connie Nielsen and an American executive played by Gina Gershon? (The casting of the latter, who first appears wearing an “I Heart Gossip” t-shirt, should tip you off that Assayas is channeling Verhoeven here instead of his usual Feuillade and Rivette.)
Assayas’s most recent picture, the genteel family drama Summer Hours, was selected as the best movie of 2009 in indiewire’s poll of more than one hundred film critics, and it came in at number six on the L’s Top 20. Pretty obviously, it was a smart career move for Assayas to ditch the disreputable subjects that have preoccupied him throughout this decade (see also the junkie redemption pic, Clean, and the S&M cum business thriller Boarding Gate). But in returning to the stately bourgeois realm of his earlier work, and in abandoning the cinema of what he has called “maximum risks,” Assayas has disappointed those like myself, who still believe that the gaudy excesses of demonlover are a truer representation of the way we live now than a thousand tasteful Summer Hours.