‘Demonlover’ Review: Assayas’ violent, sex-driven commentary on media falls short

“Demonlover” by Olivier Assayas is currently playing at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema. Recently restored, the film still stands as a venomous critique of cyberpolitics.

Now playing at Lincoln Center's virtual cinema, "Demonlover" serves as a critique of cyberpolitics. (Staff Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

By: Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

Olivier Assayas’ “Demonlover” is many things, but it is not boring. Running along at breakneck speed as it hops from one continent to the next, “Demonlover” dips its toes in corporate espionage, hentai and the deep web as it tries to untangle the complexities behind the conglomerate-driven monopolization of the internet during the early ’00s. 

Assayas, who served as editor-in-chief for Cahiers du Cinéma in the ’80s and ’90s, offers a theory-dense film that jumps from one idea to the next with every passing moment. This can muddle the viewer’s understanding of the narrative at times. The provocative nature of Assayas’ images — leather-strapped ladies and an uncomfortable amount of slimy tentacles — supersede meaning by making effective appeals to the eye that submit viewers to the act of gawking.

“Demonlover” acts as the perfect successor to David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” which translated Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media into a cerebral body-horror masterpiece. Assayas, however, looks at the internet’s place in society and hones in on his biggest fears concerning the inevitable subjugation of humanity to virtuality. Assayas worries that people will lose their freedom under the dominion of the internet. To him, everyone will end up under the thumb of cybernetic conglomerates, either by naively hunching over a screen or by slaving away in an oppressive workplace. 

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It’s the latter where the majority of the film takes place. We follow Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen), a self-assured, cutthroat entrepreneurial force willing to do anything to get ahead — or so it seems. Revelations ensue, and it becomes evident she is way out of her league in a convoluted web of spies. Agents reveal they are double agents, only to declare they are actually triple agents as an additional swerve. It’s all a bit absurd, but it works, at least when the film is placed within the French Extremist movement of the early 00s.

“Demonlover” spills blood and shows guts, which makes sense since it’s scored by Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke. The troubling part of the film is that it’s willing to go to gory extremes to make a point, even if it’s to its own detriment. As “Demonlover” begins dipping its toes in murkier waters — murder, pornography, kidnapping and blackmailing — it starts to lose itself, becoming a clear manifestation of style over substance.

With “Demonlover” submitting itself to style above all, it becomes difficult to keep up with its narrative because everyone feels so distant and hollow. Even the film’s lead, Diane de Monx, for all her moxie, feels lifeless. She’s like a video-game avatar, empty enough for anyone to place themselves in her, blissfully unaware that she’s always on the verge of death. 

Even if she’s the perfect vessel for the viewer to immerse themselves in the madness of Assayas’ vision, her lack of character makes it just as easy for the viewer to detach whenever things get too extreme. As such, Assayas’ attempts at provocation fall flat because it becomes impossible to empathize with any of the characters. It’s all noise; it’s all style; it’s all so distant. But, that may be the point. 

The film’s final moments point to why this might be. Assayas shows an American teen browsing the web and logging into what appears to be a torture-porn website. He looks unimpressed. He’s clicking links, pushing buttons and typing passwords. Assayas notes that his ability to conjure anything with the click of a button has rendered him perpetually unimpressed. Even his wildest fantasies, the  opportunity to play the modern Marquis de Sade are nothing more than headphone groans and visual vomit. The pictures paint a clear picture and it’s quite desolate. Assayas worries the internet will bring about a lifeless reality, where humanity will become unimpressionable as a result of all the images and experiences thrown at them twenty-four-seven.

Olivier Assayas’ “Demonlover” is many things, but it is not boring, even if all it is doing is highlighting how boredom consumes brain waves via blue lights. It’s an exercise in disruption, raising its fists against the idea of a numbed future where no one can feel anything anymore, where everyone has been overwhelmed by the cybernetic current of shocking spectacles. Assayas’ argument might not be the most original, but it’s certainly something to ponder. He accomplishes his objective by creating a film that’s both startling and thoughtful, unlike the stream of images that consume so many people’s lives. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Apr. 5, 2021, e-print edition. Email Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]

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