“To describe the spectacle, its formation, its functions and the forces which tend to dissolve it, one must artificially distinguish certain inseparable elements. When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle. But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught.” – Thesis 11 from Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is a genre-bending corporate espionage thriller that takes elements from neo-noir, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to depict the final triumph of the image over organic solidarity in late-capitalism. Beginning as a simple thriller about a multinational conglomerate named the Volf Corporation, Demonlover deals with various corporate acquisitions and double-crosses until eventually moving beyond localized thriller conventions. This film becomes an examination of female domination materialized through the production of perverse images that ultimately penetrate the daily life of American middle-class existence.
Assayas begins the narrative by introducing the key players in the Volf Corporation. We follow Diane (Connie Nielsen), Hervé (Charles Berling), Elise (Chloë Sevigny) and Karen (Dominique Reymond) as they go about their day-to-day activities at Volf. The first scene is set on a plane, where Diane drugs Karen’s water who then gets kidnapped and left in her trunk for 18 hours. Assayas lets us know early on that this film is about back-stabbing and dishonesty committed by a hyper-competitive employees vying for more power. With Karen out of commission for the foreseeable future, Diane replaces her, moving into a more significant position within the company.
Dianne and Hervé fly to Tokyo to discuss Volf ‘s latest acquisition of a Japanese production company, Tokyo Anime, that specializes in 3-D animated pornography. While in Tokyo, Diane and Hervé enjoy some flirtatious fun that goes nowhere much to Hervé’s disappointment. Following the Tokyo trip, Volf meets with an American pornography distributor, Demonlover, that is hoping to acquire the exclusive distribution rights of Volf’s new content from Tokyo Anime. In the meeting, Demonlover is represented by Elaine (Gina Gershon) and Edward (Edwin Gerard) and they want to completely wipe their main competitor in America, Mangatronics. The Volf Corporation discovers that Demonlover hosts a snuff website called the Hellfire Club, which specializes in producing brutal torture videos. Volf terminates the contract with Demonlover, which initiates a series of revelations and plot twists change the narrative into a increasingly despairing series of blows to Diane.
The film is made up of two distinct sections, divided somewhere in the middle of the second act. However, Assayas uses a consistent mise-en-scène that provides a sense of continuity between the two sections to make the narrative breakdown less alienating. Assayas photographs the majority of the scenes in the first half with medium shots and close-ups, creating a claustrophobic mood. Not only are characters tightly framed but Assayas uses his typical rooming camera technique to explore the various spaces occupied by the bodies in the frame, moving from hands to faces to what is beside or behind the bodies. Assayas’ camera leers at the characters, acting like surveillance equipment that does not fully capture the movements of the bodies but always gazing.
Wide shots are used sparingly in Demonlover and when they do appear, they are used to photograph contemporary urban collectives, emphasizing the elaborate transportation networks humans have created.
The repeated use of medium and close-up shots gives the film an unsettling mood by fragmenting the actors’ bodies in the frame, disconnecting their hands and eyes, turning the camera into a free-floating surveillance-like device that turns every actor into a series of fractured representations. Much like how a single pixel contain small portions of a subject, Assayas’ medium/close-up shots contain fragments of bodies in the frame. The representation of bodies by the image and there subsequent fragmentation is the primary concept for Assayas’ mise-en-scène, inspired by Debord’s theory of the spectacle in postmodernity.
The other and somewhat more obvious extension of Debord’s theory of the spectacle in Demonlover is in the way this film depicts the colonization of desire by images. When characters watch sexually graphic cartoons, they do so with complete detachment, reacting as if they were watching something like the daily news or a series of cost-analysis reports. For example, in the scene where Diane and Hervé meet with Tokyo Anime to inspect their work, they are shown graphic rape animations. They both casually watch the videos, showing no reaction to the perverted images no matter how violent and grotesque they become.
The way sexual intercourse is treated by Assayas falls in line with his Debordian philosophy as well. There is a scene later where Elise plays video games at home naked, becoming intimate with her game rather than her husband. When Hervé and Diane begin to kiss, they are interrupted by his assistant and fail to complete the act. Hervé tries to rekindle the spark later but Diane tells him they should forget what happened in Tokyo. When they do have sex, it is rough, unloving, not consensual, and ends with Diane shooting Hervé in the head. Real, physical sex is always depicted as undesirable while sexual images are viewed as commonplace, analyzed like commodities by the Volf Corporation.
Assayas presents a world not simply taken over by images where real relations are replaced with relations between images but a high-tech collective where everything has become commodified, turned into an image available for sale on the marketplace. The displacement of real sexual intercourse with the economy of sexual images is an example of what Debord meant when he deemed the spectacle as the highest form of commodity fetishism in late-capitalism.
However, there is one instance where a character reacts to an image without complete detachment. Diane’s reaction to the image is noteworthy in the meeting with Tokyo Anime. After the production company shows Diane and Hervé there previous work, they present their new 3D pornography, which is, in their estimation, the future of animated of porn. Diane’s vision for herself as a strong, independent, powerful woman existing a culture of gazing men seems to be complemented by Tokyo Anime’s selection of porn that they presented. The older, hand-drawn porn filled with women being raped is becoming obsolete while the newer, 3D porn features a strong (and barely clothed) temptress warrior that obliterates her enemies with guns and swords. Diane stares at the images attentively and seemingly projects her identity onto the powerful woman on screen.
However, Diane’s ego-projection does not foreshadow her eventual fate as a torture object for both Hervé and the Hellfire Club. Unfortunately, the images of the 2D animated porn video shown before this one foreshadow Diane’s fate at the Hellfire Club.
As mentioned above, Demonlover‘s narrative has a significant point of discontinuity that happens in the second act of the film. Assayas’ uses an increasingly cryptic and elusive style obscures plot details. While his mise-en-scène remains the same, Assayas’ montage uses much more jump cuts and fade-to-blacks than the first half which makes third act events, actions, and character motivations more obscure. The score (composed and performed by Sonic Youth) is more abrasive which invokes a sense of constant anxiety and dread for the rest of the film.
The narrative discontinuity also contrasts the way Diane is characterized in the two halves. In the first section, Diane is described many times by co-workers as a cold, calculating, bitch who is quickly rising in the Volf Corporation. She is stoic, speaks little but with conviction and authority, and does not take failure lightly. Her behavior impresses her boss, aggravates Elise, and turns on Hervé. Diane embodied the warrior character from the 3D porn from Tokyo Anime that destroys anyone that defies her until one fateful mistakes derails her rise to power.
After the meeting with Demonlover, Diane is ordered to deliver information for Mangatronics so she breaks into Elaine’s hotel room. Diane’s attempt is interrupted by Elaine and they wrestle until Diane stabs Elaine with a piece of glass in the neck. Both women stumble out of the room into the white hallway, staining the walls with blood, and Diane tries to finish Elaine off with a pillow. Believing that she killed her, Diane looks away and back to find Elaine is gone.
Elaine surprises Diane and knocks her senseless with an ashtray and collapses from the loss of blood. Diane wakes up in Elaine’s hotel room to find that all the mess she created has been cleaned up and there is no sign of Elaine. She grabs a pillow and screams as loud as she can into it, muffling herself so no one will hear.
This is the first moment where Diane shows any emotion: a mix of terror, regret, and aggression. She knows her cover is blown and her future as an undercover agent working within the Volf Corporation is over. However, Assayas does not go down this narrative possibility but connects the events of the first act into this chaotic narrative that becomes primarily about Diane losing her independence and power over others. Through a series of twists, Diane becomes subservient to Elise and signs a contract that involves her being tortured and filmed by the Hellfire Club, which is actually produced by Demonlover.
Assayas’ film connects Diane’s trajectory from an independent woman to a slave with the triumph of the image in late-capitalism. There are several scenes where Assayas deliberately lingers on screen technology whether it is at the dance club in Tokyo, Diane and Hervé watching porn in their hotel rooms, video camera footage of Diane, porn videos in Tokyo, and the various shots of the Hellfire Club website. Images have overtaken their world, constantly flashing in their faces, amusing and distracting them at the same time.
Diane has not only become a servant for Elise, and the Hellfire Club, but she also discovers that Hervé was mysteriously pulling the strings behind the scenes from the beginning. Assayas does not connect all of the dots that go along with the various plot twists and double crosses but rather focuses almost entirely on the way the events affect Diane’s psyche. The events of the first half return in the second but in the form of punishment: Diane replaces Karen in the company, Diane becomes Elise’s boss, and Diane rebuffs Hervé’s sexual advances. All of these moments return in the second half: Diane replaces Karen as a pawn for Demonlover working inside the Volf Corporation, Elise becomes Diane’s boss, and Hervé rapes Diane.
But Diane does not go down without a fight. After she is raped, Diane wakes up next to Hervé in bed and he tries to have his way with her again but Diane pulls a gun out of her purse and puts a bullet through his head. She screams hysterically, reacting to her action as if she did not expect him to die (another comment on the way screen imagery can desensitize our senses to real violence). However, this victory is short-lived. Hervé’s endgame appears to have been having sex with Diane but she is still obligated to be a spectacle for the Hellfire Club. In another scene that duplicates but revises the earlier scene in the beginning, where Diane drugged Karen, Diane is flying to a unknown location outside of Paris with Elise and Edward. He gives her pills that make her pass out. She wakes up in a bare room on a bed. In the final act, Diane struggles to escape her fate and comes to being free but her struggles are futile and the Hellfire Club captures her once again.
Assayas delivers one final twist which makes his sociological commentary painfully clear at the end. Instead of showing us Diane being tortured, Assayas cuts to an American suburban household where a young boy steals his father’s credit card so he can access the Hellfire Club on his computer. Assayas connects the international exchange of transgressive images, Diane’s road to sexual exploitation, and the “innocent” youth of American suburbia together into a cinematic report on the society of the spectacle.
The unnamed young boy completes his homework while he casually watches Diane being tortured on his computer screen. The boy’s ambivalence to the graphic images recalls the way the other characters casually watched extreme violence and sex on the various screens earlier in the film. Diane stares at the camera, through the computer screen, through Assayas’ camera, at the unknown spectators in the diegesis and the spectators watching the film, condemning us for watching her regression into a spectacle.
Next time: Rendez-vous (1985) directed by André Téchiné.
— Cody Lang