Initially met with middling reviews and poor commercial performance, Demonlover is a deeply misunderstood slice of tech-noir and an eerily prescient portrait of late-capitalist malaise.
After brokering a deal to acquire the works of a Japanese animation studio specializing in hentai, Diane, a young executive working for the French Volf Corporation, enters negotiations with Demonlover, an internet company based in America, to distribute the material. She discovers that the company is tied up with an ominous dark web torture site called Hellfire Club, a connection the Demonlover representatives deny. However, this discovery leads Diane down a dark rabbit hole of corporate intrigue, espionage and murder.
Assayas' tense cyberpunk nightmare is suffocating in its Pynchon-esque paranoia about the modern, increasingly digital and corporatized world. Set in the cosmopolitan realm of first-class flights, barren offices and computer networks, Demonlover conjures the icy detachment of works such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 tech-horror Pulse, David Cronenberg's Videodrome (although given the film's bleak, Ballardian vision, Crash might be a more apt comparison) and the dark yuppie satire of American Psycho. Adding to the techno-anxiety of the new century is the looming spectre of the War on Terror and the burgeoning expansion of the surveillance state. The society of control fully realized in capital's inescapable encroachment on the then-new digital frontier.
By setting most of the action in the liminal spaces of dim aeroplanes, neat hotels and sterile, garishly lit office buildings, Assayas effectively uproots his characters, rendering them very much like the capitalist machine they're subordinate to: amorphous, globalized and single-minded, lost in an oddly homogenous blur of nations, languages and ethnicities. Although the characters don't speak in the eerie slang of Silicon Valley (that strange Esperanto of dot-com neoliberalism) there is a kind of flat featurelessness to their exchanges which banalizes language in the context of board rooms and executive lobbies. That triviality is further highlighted when characters casually switch from one tongue to the next without missing a beat, language seemingly more of an afterthought than any extension of cultural identity.
Similar to his 1996 film, the incredible Irma Vep, the French director's cyberthriller narrative begins to dissolve about halfway through its runtime, falling apart amidst a flurry of violence and betrayal which shatters the illusion of civility that the glossy veneer of corporate professionalism is so adept at hiding. As the true extent of the violence that they perpetuate in the name of profit becomes clearer, so too does their personal propensity for bloodshed become more apparent. We are shown just how mundane this violence has become in their lives: just another task to be carried out before checking in with the babysitter or buying some cigarettes.
The film opens with the robotic beat of Neu!'s winkingly optimistic 'Hero' (since Luxury Elite's post-ironic brand of sleek business class vaporwave wasn't around yet). "Fuck the press/Fuck the program/Fuck the company/Your only friend is money" they sing later in the song, accompanied by its deceptively upbeat melody. It's an early encouragement to peer behind the cool, luxurious facade, at least for those familiar with the tune. Sonic Youth's clinking post-punk drone guitars amplify the story's quietly apocalyptic capitalist realism, while the final shots play to the atavistic chants of Darkthrone's 'Kathaarian Life Code', a song that is cut off before its eruption into a dissonant black metal assault. The band reflects bluntly on human decline: "We've become a race of the cursed seeds" spits an impish voice as the final images flicker across the screen before fading to black.
Demonlover is a haunting, claustrophobic snapshot of the early 21st century, simultaneously paranoid, numbly detached and strangely fascinated by the growing violence that surrounds us in every facet of life. Violence as a tangible thing both repels and ensnares, but it is made invisible as it becomes the cost of doing business, bursting out in a whirlwind of broken glass and severed arteries one moment, and being swiftly cleaned up the next, before it is eventually, inevitably, packaged and sold for an eager audience, completely and willfully ignorant of its full scale. It's not just the corporations, it's all of us. As Darkthrone sings: we are the "face of the goat in the mirror."