Whatever you think Demonlover is, chances are it isn't.
The title conjures up images reminiscent of fantasy artists Frank Frazetta and Simon Bisley of muscular monsters deflowering delicate damsels, but while such visions appear for a few seconds on-screen, they aren't the point. You may have heard that the movie involves anime: It does, but again, almost beside the point, as very little anime is seen. You may have heard that it stars Connie Nielsen, Chloë Sevigny, and Gina Gershon, which indeed it does (though Gershon's role is a glorified cameo), but you probably didn't expect to hear that for most of the film, they're speaking French. It played the Sitges festival of horror and sci-fi in Spain, but it no more fits those categories than, say, Mulholland Drive would. And after it played at Cannes, folks were calling Demonlover “provocative” and “disturbing,” but there aren't really any new taboos broken herein, though that may be due to the fact that 12 minutes, mostly of torture footage, have since been cut, and the score, by Sonic Youth, remixed in less cacophonous fashion (all this according to the L.A. publicists, anyway).
The film does provoke, but it's thought, rather than outrage, that's likely to be brought to the fore of a viewer's mind. What initially plays like a straight-up, slow-moving corporate espionage plot gradually dissolves into something else more compelling and twisted. Corporate spy Diane (Nielsen) works for businessman Hervé (Charles Berling) at a company that's acquiring TokyoAnime, a studio that specializes in hentai, the pornographic subgenre that often features demons tentacle-raping young girls. Unsurprisingly, this type of stuff enjoys far bigger sales in the United States than in its native Japan.
Elaine (Gershon) works for the titular Web site Demonlover.com, an online anime superstore that hopes to secure an exclusive contract with TokyoAnime, thus driving competitor Mangatronics out of business. Elise (Sevigny), who resentfully toils for Diane, is the liaison assigned to escort Elaine and her associates around Paris, but she may also be working for them, or for Karen (Dominique Reymond), who previously held Diane's position of power but is drugged and set up for a fall early in the film by Diane, who may be working for Mangatronics.
Everyone seems to have double or triple layers of deceit to her persona, but that's not why the film gets complicated. About halfway through, Diane takes a daring risk, and in the heat of the moment winds up committing a brutal crime. Or does she? The next morning she wakes up as if it's just another day, with no evidence of the act. Later, Elise shows up in Diane's car, and forces her at gunpoint to loudly rev the accelerator several times. Explaining that this is somehow a message from Karen, Elise then runs off, only to engage Diane in civil conversation over the phone a few moments later as if nothing had happened. Characters appear to be seducing each other, but may be lying. By the time the movie ends — right when things start to get really good! — several pages from the David Lynch playbook have been borrowed and modified.
It's hard to know what writer/director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) is going for, though one supposes that he wants the individual viewer to decide that subjectively. With his depiction of a multilingual “global village” interconnected via cyberspace and scored by Sonic Youth, he's succeeded in making perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of a William Gibson novel never written. But that's mainly a description of the atmosphere — storywise, it's harder to make out quite what he's getting at. A late plot development suggests that the virtual world and the real are more interrelated than we realize, and that characters can cross from one to the other, while a discussion of cultural difference that revolves entirely around the silver-screen depiction of pubic hair puts Quentin Tarantino's “Royale with cheese” dialogue to shame.
Speaking of private parts — every character in the movie seems to watch porn, while remaining utterly detached from basic human emotions. We see most of the porn in background shots, but as in Auto Focus, the crotch shots are digitally pixilated. This could be a deliberate and ironic comment on the pubic discussions, but it doesn't feel like it: The pixilation is awkward and conspicuous, and all the more obnoxious given that Demonlover is unrated and therefore shouldn't have to kowtow to silly compromises. The decision does make a point about global differences, though, by proving that American distributors still have immature, prudish hang-ups about sex, and in a way this is part of Assayas' larger theme.
Demonlover is not an easy film, but nor is it one of those defiantly difficult foreign films that seem to deliberately try our patience by being aggressively uncommercial. Assayas wants his movies to be seen, and even if the plot doesn't hook you, other things should, like the freaky score, the frenetic cinematography that varies according to the mood of the characters within a given shot (major kudos to director of photography Denis Lenoir), or the sight of Sevigny playing a PS2 game while lying naked on the bed. Whatever else it may be, this movie is not like anything you've seen this year, and those weary of Hollywood norms owe it to themselves to seek it out.