Neo-Noir Horror That’s Still Ahead of its Time, 20 Years Later
Feb 9, 2023
In Robin Morgan’s 1989 book The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism, it’s theorized that violence in the late 20th century has been fetishized and sexualized. The figure of the terrorist is now one of everyday people, and mass media has made sure to create a myth out of that violence, bringing it to the forefront of culture. As time rolls by, it’s no secret the world has become gradually numbed to brutality. Society moves on from one mass tragedy to the next barbarity with disturbing ease.
French philosopher Guy Debord coined the term “society of the spectacle” in the late ’60s with his slim, famous book, referring to the cultural phenomenon in modern society where things that were priorly experienced are now just represented. The spectacle is the commodification of human interaction, in which social relations have come to be mediated by images. Debord adapted his writing into a 1974 film titled The Society of the Spectacle, in which he criticizes mass media, marketing, and growing capitalism as key factors in the alienation of modern society. That film partly announced a new era of cinema which focused on this alienation and commodification.
By the turn of the century, French Cinema was creating works that were both a product and result of the spectacle society and its fascination with violence. New French Extremity was a term coined by critic James Quandt, referring to a body of work composed by highly transgressive films by French auteurs in the late 90s and early 2000s. These motion pictures were fueled by sexual decadence, intense but normalized forms of violence, and deeply complicated psychotic narratives. One film sometimes associated with this subgenre of horror is Olivier Assayas’ 2002 movie Demonlover.
Part neo-noir thriller, part psychological body horror, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival of said year, and has sparked controversy ever since. People have critiquue both the technical and ethical sides of Demonlover over the years as a difficult, enigmatic, or even problematic film, but like many movies that are ahead of their time, it’s been interpreted again and again with more acclaim. What was once an obscure and underappreciated gem in Assayas’ filmography is now one of the most analyzed films of his career (even if it remains divisive).
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A dark and twisted story of corporate espionage and pornography, released at a much earlier stage of internet life, Demonlover was deemed deranged and over the top, but the last 20 years have made its intense imagery and amoralist view of globalism feel closer to home. Here’s some insight into why this movie was ahead of its time and why it resonates strongly with the present.
What Happens in Demonlover?
Two corporations are fighting for the distributing rights to a 3-D hentai pornography studios’ inventory. A French corporation has acquired a large percent of the studios’ stock and is negotiating with one of the companies that wishes to have exclusive rights to distribute. In the midst of it all is Diane (Connie Nielsen), a cold-hearted executive who has climbed to a top position in the French company sidelining (almost to death) a superior officer. ‘
She is also working for Mangatronics, the corporation that is being left out of the deal, but the other company, Demonlover, also has people on the inside. What follows is a cruel story of violence and individualism at the highest levels of international capitalism.
The film’s first images where Diane sedates the executive that is overseeing the deal with Demonlover in order to place herself in said position, states the film’s morality right from the start. There is not one character here that seems to have a slight degree of consciousness. There is no redeeming human qualities or desire to do good, they are product of a society that finds these questionings as a nuisance and overall detriment to production.
As executives of multinational corporations seeking the rights to pornography, it would not be congruent for them to be people that are ethically worried about what this whole industry entails. At a dinner with the Japanese studio, the French question if minors are being used for the modeling of the hentai porn, but not for a personal concern, this is only asked for legal purposes in order for it to not be an inconvenient later on.
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These moments where Assayas shows the film’s characters engaging in business meetings have not aged at all. If at the time they seemed bleak, cold, and distant, they very well may be even colder now, but as corporate scandals have come and gone in the last two decades, it seems like the world has become anesthetized and used to it.
A society focused on profit, effectiveness and “compelling” images, is not likely to produce human beings worried about ethical practices or businesses. Even if people were, the struggle for survival places such traits as detrimental in the face of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder. The ones that manage to be on top are the ones that are the most alienated from their own humanity, having little to no regard for others more than themselves.
Diane and Hervé (Charles Berling) don’t even flinch at the images, when they visit the porn studio, if something they seemed to be amused by them. The scene is almost prophetic of all the gore content and mortal injury videos people would find themselves consuming through internet in the coming decade.
Desensitization to Violence
Filmed in the same year of terrorist attacks of 9/11, its quite understandable why the film had such harsh critiques towards its neutral eye to violence. Assayas at no moment poses the film as to have a statement on the state of the world, it’s something much more mature than that, and that is a glimpse into the fabric of society’s decadence. The same corporations, the same people that are allegedly pushing society “forward,” or are leaders of the “free world,” are the same ones that breed violence into the world.
There is one particular scene that shows this to perfection, in which Diane accesses a hidden site within Demonlover called Hell Fire Club, which is a user powered fantasy torture porn address. She explores the site to its entirety, being unable to take her eyes away, and when asked if she is not excited by it, she shares no answer. When Hell Fire Club is mentioned in negotiations, the French are not worried by the existence of the site itself, they are worried if the site is operated by the owners of Demonlover themselves (for leverage purposes).
The Body as a Tool of Capitalism
The corporeal is the corporate, the corporate is the body. Demonlover emphasizes how all the mediations, imagery, negotiations, deceit, espionage, and violence are made with and created through human bodies. A society of spectacle, no matter how many screens it goes through, has its direct effects on the human anatomy, and this is the main tool through which ideology is permeated into existence. The internet and its pornography, in the sense of Demonlover, is the nexus of all this.
Diane’s tragic fate at the end of the film marks a full circle, as she begins by disposing others of their bodily functions and ends up having no independence of her corporeal being. In today’s world, most people live their lives through their phones screens, modifying appearance and perception of both the individual and others. Thus, Demonlover and its notion that there is power in whoever controls the body, or the perception of it, is more present than ever.
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