A high-tech headscratcher, "Demonlover" starts out as a moody and intriguing corporate thriller but eventually spins off into uncharted realms of cyberhell.

A high-tech headscratcher, “Demonlover” starts out as a moody and intriguing corporate thriller but eventually spins off into uncharted realms of cyberhell. Brilliantly made change of pace by French writer-director Olivier Assayas, after his studied literary adaptation “Les destinees sentimentales,” will likely snag cult support from fans of techno-oriented fare, Japanime and the outre, but is sure to turn off general viewers due to its emotional inaccessibility, multitude of narrative problems and preoccupation with a torture Web site. Commercial outlook is dicey except in very fringy situations.

A former critic and screenwriter whose earlier pics were generally somber intimate dramas, Assayas takes on a different world here, one of sleek corporate offices, first-class air cabins, luxury hotels and cutthroat 21st century business dealings. As before, however, his focus remains mainly on women, in this case chilly backstabbers with nasty agendas that can only come to no good.

Opening stretch casts an eerie spell, as Denis Lenoir’s superbly precise handheld camerawork enormously assists in creating a rarified, ominous atmosphere where one feels anything can happen, and does. On a flight from Tokyo to Paris, Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen), exec assistant to multinational tycoon Henri-Pierre Volf (Jean-Baptise Malartre), drugs the drink of colleague Karen (Dominique Reymond), who at the airport is abducted by thugs hot for the contents of her briefcase.

With Karen out of commission, Diane is promoted and put in charge of closing a deal for Volf to buy controlling interest in TokyoAnime, a leading Japanese manga producer now blazing the trail into 3-D porn. Pic continues to beguile and, as it happens, reaches its high point when Diane and fellow exec Herve (Charles Berling) return to Japan to visit TokyoAnime’s studio. The displays of “traditional” anime and its far more vivid and realistic 3-D successors are mesmerizing, and combine with a sort of woozy, nocturnal, otherworldly portrait of Tokyo to soften the viewer up to follow the story just about anywhere.

But rather than deepening the mystery and sense of intoxication, the picture soon becomes one prolonged and very bad hangover. Diane is, in fact, a spy for Megatronics, a company out to sabotage Volf’s financing deal with rival Demonlover, a major American sex-and-violence Web site. Latter is repped in final Paris negotiations by Elaine (Gina Gershon), a tough-as-nails sex bomb who thinks she can get the better of Diane.

Another antagonist for Diane is her assistant Elise (Chloe Sevigny), who resents Diane for so blithely stepping into Karen’s shoes and devises increasingly brutal modes of retaliation. Then there’s the equivocal position of the nervy Herve, whose amorous attention Diane didn’t seem to mind in Tokyo but who can’t read the contradictory signals he gets back in Paris.

Throughout the second hour, some surprising, even shocking, examples of “real” violence are contrasted with disturbing visions drawn from the notorious Hell Fire Club, a torture Web site specializing in snuff-film-like episodes of the worst things imaginable being done to women.

On a narrative level, the fact that the multiple murders of prominent characters aren’t even acknowledged or shown to impinge on the much-elaborated business negotiations is ludicrous enough. Worse, however, is the fact that the central figure in most of this, Diane, remains such an incoherent, unrealized character. As the film wears on, it becomes increasingly apparent — and increasingly detrimental to it — that Assayas never developed a sufficiently clear picture of this duplicitous and evil woman, what drives and obsesses her, and how she imagines she’s going to pull off the major subterfuge she undertakes.

At a glance, this unsympathetic character could have been fleshed out or made interesting in one of at least two ways: as a strange, terrifyingly strong-willed woman along the lines of Isabelle Huppert in “The Piano Teacher,” or as a vulnerable but edgy woman who can’t resist pushing herself to the edge of the abyss in attempt to find or define herself.

As it is, however, there is no psychology or inner self to Diane offered at all, and nothing for Nielsen to play except physical ambiguities. This, in turn, leaves the viewer no portal into the story’s intrigue, resulting in tune-out and turn-off well before the left-field “action” climax and would-be ironic capper.

Principal pleasures, then, reside in the film’s striking surfaces, which are defined by a coolly pastel color palette, lush settings, beautiful people and a Sonic Youth score that is hallmarked by periodic intense electronic sounds.

Most of the dialogue is in French, although in the heat of anger both Nielsen and Sevigny slip into distinctly American-accented English.

Demonlover

Competing / France

Production

An Elizabeth Films-M6 Films-Citizen Films co-production, with the participation of TPS Cinema and Soficas Gimages and Cofimages, with the support of Groupe Datacine and Procirep. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli. Executive producers, Claude Davy, Jean Coulon. Directed, written by Olivier Assayas.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Denis Lenoir; editor, Luc Barnier; music, Sonic Youth; production designer, Francois-Renaud Labarthe; set decorator, Cecile Deleu-Montel; costume designer, Anais Romand; sound (Dolby Digital/DTSS), Philippe Richard; sound editor, Olivier Goinard; line producer, Sylvie Barthet; associate producers, Andres Martin, Forensic Films; assistant director, Marie-Jeanne Pascal; second unit camera, Yorick Le Saux; casting, Antoinette Boulat (France), Kerry Barden (U.S.). Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2002. Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Diane de Monx - Connie Nielsen Herve Le Millinec - Charles Berling Elise Lipsky - Chloe Sevigny Elaine Si Gibril - Gina Gershon Henri-Pierre Volf - Jean-Baptiste Malartre Karen - Dominique Reymond Edward Gomez - Edwin Gerard American Lawyer - Thomas M. Pollard Kaori - Abi Sakamoto (French, English, Japanese dialogue.)
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