‘demonlover’ – the brutal business of corporate conspiracy on Max and Criterion Channel

Getting ahead in the corporate world is brutal business in Olivier Assayas’ confrontational thriller demonlover (France, 2002).

Connie Nielsen is the “ice princess” Diane de Monx, an ambitious American executive in Paris who brutally takes over the negotiations over control of a Japanese anime porn company by drugging and kidnapping her rival. Diane isn’t merely a brass-knuckle corporate brawler, she’s a business spy and a saboteur jousting with competitive associates (conniving Charles Berling and contemptuous Chloë Sevigny) and rivals (a surly and sassy Gina Gershon).

Yet as this nasty little corporate thriller slithers into much more provocative territory, her ruthless subversions and brutal violations (legal, moral, and personal) prove to be strictly amateur hour in the predatory big leagues of corporate conspiracy. That’s where Assayas steers the film off the map. The more she peeks into the shadowy corners of hidden alliances, the less sense anything makes, as if “the conspiracy” is not merely unknowable, but indefinable.

That incoherence doesn’t make demonlover much of an audience pleaser, but then Assayas isn’t out to reassure. He tackles nothing less than the relationship between the overwhelming effects of cultural imagery, the new international economy, and consumer complicity in the commerce of brutality. With more passion than lucidity, perhaps, but with an alienated, voyeuristic style and a ruthless eye for hard, disturbing images.

From the first voyeuristic peak into the ruthless world to the haunting, accusatory, unforgettable final image, it’s a brilliant, stunning piece of work, perhaps not his best, but certainly his most fearless and impassioned.

The film had a largely negative reception with a few impassioned defenders upon release yet its reputation improved upon reassessement. It all but disappeared for years until it was restored in an unrated director’s cut in 2021.

Rated R, in English, French, and Japanese with English subtitles

It’s a difficult film to find. The American DVD is out of print (as of this writing) and it is difficult to find on VOD through Amazon Video and other services.
demonlover [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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