Friday 25 August 2017

The Question in Bodies #2: Demonlover (2002)

With the speed in which the Internet has transformed our culture, and has transformed itself, it is perhaps inevitable that few things have dated more swiftly and more profoundly than films about the web.

Olivier Assayas' 2002 film Demonlover is not really an exception to this rule, but it nonetheless turned out to be one of the most prescient Internet Movies made before about 2010, and that mainly is  I think because it's not about the technology, but about how people respond to it, and about what it means for human identity and, inevitably, sexuality.

If you care about spoilers, and you think you might see this film, this post is going to give away nearly all the twists. That includes the pictures. Sorry. 
Demonlover wasn't at all well-received on its original release. Critics thought it was far-fetched, that its final act was nonsensical. Well, the most far-fetched bits turn out to be the parts that contained the most accurate predictions; the apparent nonsense of the final act is in fact a powerful expression of a human identity in crisis. Demonlover, made in French, Japanese and English, is peak Identity Horror.

Executive Diane de Monx (polyglot hero Connie Nielsen, a brilliant, woefully underused actor) is on a plane trip, business class, as the film opens. We see her talking business long into the night, eating airline food, exchanging pleasantries with colleagues and injecting another executive's Evian with a sedative.

This colleague, Karen (Dominique Reymond), has a funny turn in the arrival lounge, and while she's disoriented, two men grab her and her baggage and bundle the helpless woman into the boot of a car. They drive away.

This matter-of-fact and brutal piece of sabotage loses Karen her job, and clears the way for Diane to take her place as one of the managers of the Tokyo Anime contract, alongside Hervé (Charles Berling) who doesn't so much carry a torch for Diane as nurse an abiding desire to just fuck her. Their boss, Henri-Pierre Volf (Jean-Baptiste Malartre) is demanding, ruthless, and he expects this of his subordinates; Diane and Hervé admirably fit the bill. Diane also inherits Karen's PA, Elise (Chloë Sevigny).

It's nothing personal, except maybe with Elise. Diane and Elise loathe each other.
Diane, we discover early on, isn't just sabotaging colleagues for her own advancement. Diane is in fact an industrial spy. She is here to interfere with the Tokyo Anime contract. As it stands, the Tokyo Anime contract will give The Volf Corporation a near monopoly on the world distribution of hentai anime (if you don't speak nerd: porn cartoons). That sorted, it will allow Volf to negotiate with the American company Demonlover for distribution rights to the US; represented by Elaine (Gina Gershon), it turns out that Demonlover is responsible for online porn, specialising in copyright-smashing porn versions of well-known pop-culture characters – they are, it comes out in the negotiations, currently being sued by Eidos for making money off a site called (no, I haven't put that into my browser window).

But Demonlover also runs the Hellfire Club, a site where people can pay to see real women dressed and tortured to their specifications. Sure, Elaine and her team deny it, but it's them, it is. Hervé has proof.

Will Volf and his people expose them? Nope. If anything, they want a piece of the action. They don't care. Diane might be working for Mangatronics, Demonlover's most direct competitor, but there's nothing personal there. It's all just business, cold, ruthless people doing business.

The only character who seems to show any real loyalty to anyone, any moral backbone at all, is Elise, who seems to show genuine concern for Karen. She has a family. We briefly see Elise with her husband/partner, with whom she shares a moment of genuine affection, the only affection in the film. She never quite voices her clearly apparent disapproval. It's Elise who leaves the empty sedative packet and a note printed with the words Vous avez oublié quelque chose on her desk. But revenge-driven blackmail, which is what this appears to be, that seems honestly the most human emotion anyone expresses in the film.

Except none of this is quite as straightforward as it seems to be. Elise has an agenda of her own. And Diane is not who we think she is.

It's nothing personal.
In Tokyo, after seeing Tokyo Anime's wares, Diane and Hervé head to their hotel rooms, and while Hervé fucks the interpreter, Diane checks out the pay per view porn, and OK, she's lonely, right, except as soon as Hellfire Club comes up, she's got herself an account and she's checking out videos of Zora, a masked latex-clad girl who gets shackled to an electrified bedstead.

The threads of the narrative begin to collapse in on themselves. Diane murders someone, but the murder scene gets cleared up and the body vanishes, and a handicam tape of the cleanup appears in Diane's apartment.

Elise begins to exert a control over her supposed boss. Diane meekly allows herself to be taken away for a weekend. Something happens to her in a basement, on camera. She's left unconscious in her apartment, with Elise sitting on the bed beside her cleaning the (unexplained) blood off her, and Elise takes a call from Diane's supposed employer, saying (in French): "She doesn't work for you anymore. Who decided that? Me."

The scenes become more disjointed, stranger. The plot begins to fragment, along with Diane. Pieces we thought had been taken off the board become players.
It's nothing personal.

Diane isn't her name; it never was. In the closing scenes of the film, Diane allows herself to sleep with Hervé... and then kills him. She's taken away again. She wakes up in Emma Peel cosplay, tries to find the wherewithal to escape. There's a chase. She's caught. She goes back. And of course she is Zora... but she was Zora all along. Even before. She was always Demonlover's puppet. So what? Does she remember being Zora? Did she know she was being used this way? If she did, was she not aware that her other job was owned by the people she was supposed to be sabotaging?

The film doesn't answer the questions, but the inference I took away is that it doesn't matter. She's a cypher, a blank slate with a fake identity. An empty person. She's Zora, she's Diane. But really, what she is, is a commodity, in either world. She's saleable. She ends the film as Zora. Just Zora, about to be dressed up as one of the X-Men and facing an existence of sexual torture for the entertainment of paying subscribers.

It's a weird, disturbing film, chilly as hell. It's dated – it's an early 2000s cyberthriller, of course it has – but not as badly as most othet films of its era have, partly because it's shot with a cold detachment and a lot of the time looks like it could have been made pretty much any time since about 1995 right up to the present, and partly because its excellent soundtrack, by Sonic Youth, has a degree of cool that is entirely outside of concerns of fashion.

But the main reason it hasn't dated so badly is because it doesn't really sweat the technology. It's about what the medium does to people, it's about what people will do for money, and it's about how the fake identities of the net and the fake identities of business and espionage and sex and murder all converge. And in some ways it's a prescient movie. Rule Thirty-Four is sort of a fact of life now, but in 2003 it wasn't a thing with a name; and yet Demonlover runs with it, extrapolates to the furthest point. To wit: if you're on the internet, there is porn of you.

That sounded awfully clever in my head, and less clever on the page, so I'm going to have to unpack that. What I mean is that if we commodify ourselves on the internet, if we create these identities on social media – and we do, because Facebook!You is not exactly the same as You – we commodify ourselves.
The brief snatches of godawful hentai we see could I guess be the real thing (although I honestly don't know. I'm basing it on the five minutes or so of Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend I managed to get through before going "nope", when it was broadcast on Channel 4 many years ago) but they're sort of beside the point. When you have a business meeting that discusses in clinical terms the financial and legal pros and cons of pubic hair on cartoon characters, the content is sort of beside the point. We are commodities. You buy into online porn, and it buys into you.

Demonlover gives us the new world of the Internet: where identity is mutable, saleable; where we become part of the machine, at the mercy of people on the other side of the screen.

It's nothing personal. Now, maybe less than ever.