This is the central thesis Assayas raises here – instant gratification via the image suggests a greater degree of control over what we consume (including its ethics) when in fact the consumer is hopelessly chained to a perpetual engine of human suffering that is merely reconfigured to fit the needs of the consumer. The cruelty is the point.
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In 1987, Jean Baudrillard published his continuation of his discussion of the image introduced in his seminal Simulacra and Simulation. Titled The Evil Demon of Images, this work applied the semiotic framework – that is, of the simulacra becoming a separate entity from that which it is an image of – to New Hollywood cinema, particularly Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Baudrillard suggested that Apocalypse Now was symptomatic of how war has become “cinematographic and televisual,” framed as something to be consumed by hordes of famished consumers. Whilst acknowledging Coppola’s construction of war as being a particularly overwhelming, thrilling one, Baudrillard also notes that it is “precisely when it [the image] appears most truthful, most faithful, and most in conformity to reality that the image is most diabolical.” The notion that the image necessarily reflected that which it draws from is sharply dismissed, since the production of such images precedes the real, thereby inverting the logical order of the original followed by its copy. Therefore, gratification via consumption of images does not require the existence – in material terms – of something in order for the image to be drawn from it. Instead, what is depicted in the bounds of the image replaces the original – in witnessing footage of the Gulf War, as Baudrillard famously argued, the audience consumed the image of what appeared to be a conflict of infantries rooted in notions of sacrifice, when in fact the actual occurrence of events mirrored a massacre more than it did a war of equal capabilities. In a similar vein, gaining catharsis or pleasure through the witnessing of violence does not necessarily require these acts of violence to be executed. However, the troublesome nature of the contemporary image is that the border between the image and the “original” act that is being alluded to begins to dissolve. Therefore, what may appear to the consumer – or more specifically, the voyeur – as a mere diorama may in fact be “the real thing.” This dissolution of the barrier between voyeur and object of voyeurism is the lynchpin of Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover, one of the more prescient Y2K texts on voyeurism-as-trap.
In order to identify how Demonlover situates voyeurism in an intricate network of espionage and murder, placing it within the wider context of Assayas’s filmography is essential. In 1996, his first collaboration with Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep, premiered in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes. Through incorporating mixed media ranging from Cheung’s own filmography to clips of Feuillade’s Les Vampires, it acted as a work of incisive metafiction that would tear into the barrier between not just Cheung’s personal life and her work but also that of Assayas – two years later, he married Cheung in what would be a short-lived and torrid union. Irma Vep is as much a film about its own making as it is about the collisions of egos and obsessions inherent to the production of any work of art. In writing the directorial stand-in as a destructive personality using Cheung’s (who plays herself) role as a conduit to work through his fixation on her, Assayas seems to be using the film as a bridge between the tantalizing image of her that he has constructed and the flesh-and-blood person that he finds it difficult to connect to. This abstract form of voyeurism is transposed on Cheung’s self-insert in the film; she becomes sublimated within the role of the French cat burglar she plays on-screen to the extent that it begins to seep into her ostensibly separate personal life. Assayas’s handheld approach frames this dissolving of boundaries as an enticing opportunity – on breaking into someone’s apartment, Cheung’s character stares into a mirror, as if trying to determine which sphere of her identity she is currently operating in. The camera pans over to a necklace on a marble countertop, glistening in the moonlight – it is here that Assayas’s formal sensibilities mirror something almost documentarian, settling on the necklace with uncharacteristic patience. As Cheung’s character exits into a blue haze of rain and thunder, accompanied by the very same necklace, she appears to have sunk entirely into the role of Irma Vep, with her pitch-black silhouette and rain-soaked hair mirroring the appearance of the Feuillade’s Vampires as monochrome spectres. The latex bodysuit encasing her hides any trace of the “real” Cheung, providing a conduit for her to enact her fantasies of escaping the rigid conformity of the set. The ability of the image – in this case, Feuillade’s Les Vampires – to act as a form of voyeurism is mirrored in Demonlover, but in a decidedly less playful light.
Where Irma Vep presented the image as a space in which fantasies can be enacted and boundaries transgressed without consequence, Demonlover penetrates. It sifts through layers of media hypersaturation to identify, in all its unrelenting brutality, the material foundation on which voyeurism is enacted. Motifs of expression of sexuality in Irma Vep, particularly the latex bodysuit, are recontextualized here as Foucaldian prisons, entrapping victims of capitalist exploitation under an outfit that transforms them into commodities. The film’s central conceit is that of the ongoing negotiations between corporations seeking to monopolise their respective industries – in this case, pornography. A cadre of French executives travel between a number of featureless spaces, composed of glass-and-steel brutalist architecture. In these spaces, they negotiate the purchase of various properties in a range of media formats – one of the first meetings in the film revolves around the purchase of a Japanese anime producer, and the shift from conventional 2-D anime to increasingly lifelike 3-D motion-capture videos. Though these negotiations are cold and methodical, the content of what lies in acquisition contracts is not lost on either Diane (Connie Nielsen) or Herve (Charles Berling), the respective assistant and employer who represent an unnamed French corporation at these meetings. As in Irma Vep, Assayas employs the use of mixed media to bridge the distance between the voyeur and the object of their arousal. During a visit to an anime production house, the film suddenly cuts to a sample clip of the anime shown to Diane or Herve, with pixelated censorship obscuring the rather graphic nature of the rape on-screen. After a moment’s pause, Herve snidely remarks, “She’s in a tight fix,” which is representative of the dismissiveness of corporations toward exploitation that seems to exist in a virtual realm then, but will later arise during the exploitation of real people. This observation of the taboo is a key concern of the film, and is mirrored in every interaction with media on-screen. Though these executives are protected (up to a point) from the material ramifications of the media they acquire, it becomes clear early on that entering this realm of the taboo is not without risk – in the film’s opening, Diane laces a water bottle with a sedative, graciously offering it to her corporate superior, Karen, whose unconscious body is later abducted and shoved into the boot of a car by a group of young men. Cutthroat corporate competition is framed as inseparable from the polite negotiations held over tea and sake, which is an element that Luc Barnier’s editing complements – the film cuts, rather abruptly, from images of safety within glistening-white hotel rooms to whirlwinds of bloodstained walls and LiveLeak torture videos.
In tackling the material exploitation embedded in the Internet that is often necessary for the viewer’s fulfilment of their own fantasies, Demonlover is unusually prescient. It is, of course, a dated work in that the media saturating it is representative of early Y2K culture – Darkthrone on the soundtrack and George W. Bush on CNN. Yet these signifiers of its age do not detract from its potency as a postmodern text – if anything, they render it all the more eerie in its vision of dehumanization in service of hitting Q4 corporate targets. This eeriness bleeds into the film’s oddly serene tone in its first half, alternating smoothly between liminal spaces as our executives glide toward the signing of a contract. The introduction of an American corporation halfway through, however, results in both a drastic tonal shift and a starkly brutal examination of the position of the voyeur. The group demonlover.com negotiates a merger between themselves and the company Diane and Herve are representing. This negotiation becomes submerged in murky waters, however, when the existence of an online torture livestream website, the Hellfire Club, becomes a point of contention. Here is where frequent comparisons to Cronenberg’s seminal work Videodrome become most apparent – up until this point, Diane’s role has been that of an emissary, with enough distance between herself and the object of her goals to protect her from the ramifications of acquiring potentially illegal pornographic content. Becoming aware of the existence of the Hellfire Club, however, positions her beyond the border of safe observation and into the realm of the voyeur – that is, where the possibility of being discovered manifests, introducing both excitement and terror. Slowly but surely, her world begins to disintegrate.
With this disintegration comes the opportunity for an escalation in Assayas’s formal experimentation, which he clearly takes advantage of by incorporating alternative modes of cinematic expression. A late-night break-in into a Demonlover executive’s hotel room is framed as a sequence from a giallo, with Denis Lenoir’s compositions recalling the work of Argento – take the motif of a hand outstretched toward a shard of broken glass illuminated by moonlight, or the bloodied shadow of a victim seemingly rising from the dead to incapacitate Diane, before drifting off into the realm of the dead. The meshing of the exploitation film with the slick, contemporary spy thriller results in the birthing of a strange chimera that is at once repulsed and entranced by the human suffering on display. Demonlover’s fascination with the fluid position of the voyeur in the Internet age is not confined to its characters – it is clear that Assayas, as frightened as he may be by the commodification of the body by multinational corporations, is simultaneously aroused by the transgression of the boundaries of the taboo that these technologies enable. This is apparent in how the film frames disembodiment as a nigh-supernatural phenomenon, particularly with regard to how Diane seems to lose herself in her engrossment with the Hellfire Club. In her first interaction with the site, Barnier’s editing shifts from a more documentarian mode that allows for observation of environmental detail to a much more critical one. As Diane’s hand hovers over a mouse, it cuts to a close-up of a computer screen; a figure cloaked in a black rubber jumpsuit writhes around in fear, threatening to break out of the frame. Text overlays materialize, spelling out the seemingly innocuous phrase “LEARN MORE.” With the click of a mouse, a montage of torture ensues – whether it’s electrocution or waterboarding, the shapeless black figure in the centre of the frame remains seemingly identical. A jump cut to Karen entering the room ensues, where the position of the Hellfire Club shifts from a foreign, abstract collection of pixels on a screen to inescapable reality: she has become a corporate liability, and will be dealt with in the way all corporate liabilities are dealt with. The seductiveness of a hermetically sealed world of fast cars, corporate espionage, and private nightclubs is recontextualized as a minefield of deception that Diane’s discovery of the Hellfire Club has ignited. Even the seemingly mundane images littering the featureless landscapes of Demonlover take on a sinister quality: a pan to George W. Bush announcing economic reform brings to mind the justification of torture as a necessary effort in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, with the end result being the profiting of American weapons manufacturers and war companies from said torture. Before torture became official U.S. government policy, the film asserts, it was just business.
In stripping away the veneer of seduction that cloaked its first half, the film thus progresses toward the hellscape of late capitalism. The layers of obfuscation that characterize Assayas’s compositions shift from frosted glass and rain-streaked windows to cross-fades between places and faces, further separating its characters from the realm of the material. The revelation of Diane’s murder of a Demonlover executive becomes blackmail, coercing her into a contract that plunges her into the heart of darkness, not unlike, for example, Willard in Apocalypse Now. The difference, though, is that where Willard chooses to carve out his own symbolic fate by killing Kurtz, Diane does not seem to have a choice. From this point on, the narrative transforms into a series of vignettes – she floats through a series of transitional places with a bag encasing her head. As she enters a dungeon of steel and stone underground, there is a sudden cut to a summer mansion, underneath which lies Diane’s own personal hell. This alternation between images of serenity and brutality results in an emotional disconnect, which mirrors Diane’s own inability to accept what is happening to her. What Videodrome implied, with regard to how material exploitation can be redirected toward anyone (even those in charge of exploitation), escalates into an increasingly shrill scream into the void here; where the Freudian chest orifices in that film signify a sort of self-inflicted schizophrenia, bringing distinctly masculine anxieties to the (literal) surface, here there exists no sign of the violence orchestrated in service of corporate interests. This violence is contained and compartmentalized. If there are any signs of exploitation, they are swiftly scrubbed and covered, leaving only pristine surfaces, like the crisp white shirt worn by Diane’s unconscious body on her return from her first episode in the Hellfire Club, which is slowly soiled by blood seeping from the wounds underneath. A clear denunciation of this exploitation via voyeuristic obscenity is unnecessary when Nielsen’s depiction of a woman robbed of her autonomy, via simply abstaining from speaking in a situation where her corporate status would have previously emboldened her to speak her mind, says so much more than the former ever could.
Yet Diane does not entirely cease resistance against the fate that has been imposed on her until the very end. Toward the end of the film’s final vignette, her murder of Herve after he reveals himself to be a mole for Demonlover signals the crossing of a boundary. On the destruction of her last physical connection to her former life as a corporate executive, she is separated from any trace of spatiotemporal anchorage. She then travels through the streams of capital she once controlled, flying in a helicopter between nameless deserts underneath a sky empty of promise. Cross-fades between desolate, empty landscapes and jagged mountain peaks isolate Diane from any semblance of humanity. She has become the very labour that she exploits not just in the workplace but in the form of consuming the livestreamed torture that necessitates their exploitation. For a moment, Assayas even suggests the possibility of escape via an image that recalls his second directorial feature, Cold Water. In that film, a pile of burning ephemera in an icy landscape suggests a destruction of the past, which, for the abused runaway teenagers around whom the film revolves, represents hope beyond the rigid shackles of adulthood. In Demonlover, a similar composition is created when Diane, after escaping a Hellfire Club dungeon hidden somewhere in the middle of a desert, triggers a car chase, where faceless enforcers chase her through roads leading to oblivion. A collision results in Diane being the only survivor, staring at an overturned car burning in the desert night. Where there was joy in the eyes of the teens in Cold Water, however, there exists no trace of human emotion on Diane’s face, as a shift in lens focus seems to envelop her into the flames. There can be no escape because, as the final image of the film so succinctly proposes, she has already become sublimated within the image, having entered into a contract that robs her of her bodily autonomy. She is, in other words, no longer in control. This is the central thesis Assayas raises here – instant gratification via the image suggests a greater degree of control over what we consume (including its ethics) when in fact the consumer is hopelessly chained to a perpetual engine of human suffering that is merely reconfigured to fit the needs of the consumer. The cruelty is the point.
The film closes on an isolated episode in a vision of idyllic American suburbia, with a teenage boy sneaking into his room. He opens the web portal to the Hellfire Club, signing up with what is presumed to be his parents’ credit card. He sifts through a series of clips, eventually settling on one as if choosing from a menu. We then enter a world filtered through the lens of a camcorder – Diane, clad in a black jumpsuit, sits in another featureless dungeon, submitting to being covered in a mask that hides everything except her mouth. The boy types in a series of commands, which inscribe his fantasy onto the shapeless figure on his computer screen. Nightfall ensues. We observe the same teenager, doing his homework under lamplight, with one differentiating feature: the computer is still turned on, and Diane’s unmoving face is projected on it. She sits, ostensibly waiting for the unnamed teenager’s next series of commands. Yet he doesn’t even seem to notice that there is a human being on the other end of the screen, being forcefully poured into suffocating jumpsuits to satisfy his demands. Diane stares reproachfully as the camera lingers on her for a moment, and then pans over to a notebook, as the film fades to black. Whether she was ever really present as a human being in her previous function of soulless corporate executive is in question, but the only thing that is true now is that she no longer seems to exist. She is a nameless figure on a computer screen, sequestered in an abyss of torture hidden far beyond civilization. The film may have ended, but what renders this ending so deeply unsettling is that she is still there, waiting. Until the next customer. . . .
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All images are screenshots from the film.