Like so many Olivier Assayas films, Demonlover belongs to the ghosts. In this particular case they are enigmatic, ladder-climbing players in a high-stakes game of corporate espionage. Devoid of backstories or any motivation beyond power, influence, and desire, they are walking ellipses created for the sole purpose of inspiring visceral appeal and narrative misdirection.
Demonlover blends elements of the thriller, heist film, and porn with revolutionary verve, revealing the incredibly close proximity of high art and lowbrow kinks. But what makes this hallucinatory and nightmarish vision of early-online subterfuge so singular is how it fixates on analog textures within a crumbling post-modern world slowly being consumed by all things digital. Every grainy frame exudes the dying gasp of celluloid.
Nearly twenty years after its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Demonlover returns in a newly restored, unrated director’s cut that only magnifies its themes of disappearance and submersion. Cold color schemes and minimalist corporate interiors hide a brutal virtual underbelly that is slowly revealing itself to a world of super consumers, proving the dark web much closer than we think.
Assayas has always been a master of the technically impressive sequence that sends reverberations throughout the rest of his film. In Demonlover, the entire narrative feels like one set piece that keeps folding onto itself. The first domino falls when corporate spy Diane (Connie Nielson) poisons the water of her superior on a red eye to Paris, setting off a cutthroat, globetrotting saga of intrigue and negotiation that will end in fire and brimstone.
Story particulars are less important than the cinematic momentum propelling her through a portal of snuff videos, anime sex, and violent confrontations founded on intimacy. Both dangerous and seductive, these moments come to represent the split personality of Assayas the artist—part purest, part provocateur. Diane remains his cypher at the center of the storm. She will don full-leather body suits to climb through windows and lay down on beds, embarking on more high-wire walks than Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep.
Demonlover gradually asks both Diane and the viewer to relinquish control over preconceptions about art, in turn admitting that some fascinations with cinema are destructive in nature. Watching action films and car crashes (depicted, often, on televisions in the background of random scenes) carries with it a release of anxiety, a thankful feeling that it wasn’t us being killed or maimed.
Diane begins transcending that gap in experience when she gets embroiled with the shady figures running an underground torture site whose voyeuristic images are made more profoundly disturbing by a nerve-fraying score produced by Sonic Youth. She eventually disappears down the rabbit hole and tumbles onto the screen of an American teenager’s computer, where one can pay to view hell with daddy’s credit card.
Demonlover is, above all else, a film caught between time periods and formats, maneuvering the tricky acrobatics of cinematic spaces that are still changing to this day. Instead of presenting such ideas in some absolute way, Assayas embraces uncertainty with kinetic image-making and subversive, even dreamlike turns in narrative. “I felt you were there and not there,” says Diane’s competitive colleague-turned-lover Herve (Charles Berling) during their sushi dinner for the ages. And of course he’s right.
The new restoration of Demonlover opens Friday, February 12 in Virtual Cinemas.