Although Olivier Assayas had already made a number of films about subjects close to his heart, revolving around youth, music, relationships and revolution in films like Disorder, Winter's Child and Cold Water, and would in between demonstrate his capabilities with the large-scale costume drama Les Destinées Sentimentales, it wasn't until Irma Vep (1996) and then Demonlover (2002) that he truly made the leap to become an auteur filmmaker. As a former writer for Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Assayas followed in the footsteps of Godard and Truffaut to analyse and criticise cinema from within, taking it into his own hands to propose a new way of making films. You know you're a proper filmmaker when you start making films about making films.
Irma Vep was, however ,much more than a self-indulgent exploration of what it means to be a filmmaker and more of a manifesto for a way of making cinema in a changing globalised world. Assayas not only set about showing how French cinema had become tired and pretentious, but ambitiously set about showing how it could extend its outlook beyond self-limiting boundaries and expectations. If Irma Vep - as the title implies - was a remix of the early potential of French cinema in Feuillade's Les Vampires reinvigorated in a dialectic with Asian cinema, Demonlover was more of a premonitory warning of the dark side that those energies could unleash.
Many critics failed to see what Assayas was getting at when the film debuted at Cannes in 2002 and instead just saw a confusing and somewhat far-fetched corporate espionage thriller, and you can see why. The intrigue involves the Volf Corporation who are hoping to bring 'adult' anime and comics to Europe in a partnership with Demonlover, a US company who own a large share of the US market. Returning from a business trip in Japan with the TokyoAnime, Volf executive Diane (Connie Nielsen) is revealed to be working as an agent for Mangatronics, a rival of Demonlover. There are rumours that Demonlover are behind an interactive torture porn internet site, and Diane needs to find evidence of this and take whatever additional action is necessary to ruin any deal.
Diane's corporate espionage activities may have gone undetected at Volf - although an anonymous note on her desk suggests someone is aware - but her ambition hasn't gone unnoticed, and it's causing tensions with one of her staff Elise (Chloë Sevigny) and a more aggressive sexual approach from her colleague (Charles Berling). As personal and business interests become entangled and it becomes evident that you no-one can trust anyone else, Demonlover becomes a corporate and personal power play, a ruthless push for domination and control in the dangerously desensitised world of business interests and ambition.
That much is evident as far as the admittedly complicated plotting goes, but what is less obvious is the underlying message Assayas is applying to the wider question of control and how we can possibly retain it in a rapidly changing globalised world. Inevitably, some of those ideas and technologies look a little dated now but the intent is the same, the film presenting a vision of hell to come in the future that has turned out in some respects to be surprisingly accurate. Demonlover recognises already in 2002 the dominant role that the internet would come to play in our lives, of the power and reach that large global corporations would gain and the cut-throat methods by which they would protect their own interests; a struggle for power with consequences that would become increasingly difficult to control or even know who is in control.
As far as the role that a filmmaker has to play in this, Demonlover builds on the proposition put forward in Irma Vep, taking a self-reflexive arthouse approach to genre movie references. Demonlover's premonitory outlook is more of an admonition on how the movie industry with its rigidly defined commercial interests might not yet be ready for technological and global changes to come (and the critics certainly weren't ready for Demonlover when it came out in 2002). Assayas also recognises the incompatibilities between different cultural values that pose challenges and real dangers not just to businesses, but artists and individuals. Welcome to the Hellfire Club.
Demonlover is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy, a UK only Region B release. The transfer of the original 121 minute director's cut is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio from a brand new 2K restoration of the film. If there are any signs of compression artefacts or instability in blocks of colour, it's only really noticeable in freeze-frame. The film looks great in normal playback, the image clear and free from any flaws, the grain well handled, keeping an authentic film appearance that is slightly soft rather than clinically sharp. It's a film of striking changes of tone in lighting and colouration and the transfer effectively handles the different film sticks and digital media, the handheld and manipulated footage from security cameras and internet sites, as well as animation sequences and early 3-D digital animation. The original surround mix is presented in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and there's an LPCM 2.0 track. Both are dynamic, particularly punchy in the music and the electronic distortions of the Sonic Youth score.
The extra features are frankly overkill, the film so thoroughly pulled apart, dissected and analysed that you'll have no incentive to ever watch it again. You at least have the option to pick and choose what you want to see and there is some good archive material that you wouldn't want left out. I found the interviews and the half-hour film of Sonic Youth recording sessions interesting, but only flicked though most of the other features. Jonathan Romney's analysis and contextualisation is thorough and but much too long and detailed when there's also a full-length director's commentary (in French, subtitled), a 40-minute 2003 Q&A with Assayas, an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary and a booklet with new writing on the film by Anne Billson. The longer Hellfire Club scene that was cut after the Cannes screening is included here and you have the original trailers.