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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Fetish film ties itself in knots


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: English, French, Japanese
Opens March 12
[See Japan Times movie listings]

A dominatrix working at a Roppongi club (which will remain unnamed) once told me that many of her clients were men in executive or managerial jobs. After giving orders all week, it seemed they were eager to take some discipline themselves, whether that meant being collared and forced to bark like a dog, or having a nail driven through their . . . well, let's just stop there.

News photo
Connie Nielsen in "Demonlover"

Anyway, the parallels between corporate world power struggles and the psychology of S&M were out there waiting to be drawn, and Olivier Assayas, with his film "Demonlover," has taken a crack at it. Set in a future just slightly beyond the grasp of the present, "Demonlover" follows ruthless corporate warriors as they try to secure the market for Internet S&M porn sites.

Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen, "Gladiator") works for the Europe-based Volf Corporation, who are engaged in negotiations with Japanese content providers Tokyo Anime, the developers of new 3-D pornography. Eager to be at the helm of the negotiations, Diane drugs her superior, Karen (Dominique Reymond), and has her spirited away by thugs until the corporation has her replaced by Diane. Diane's colleague Herve (Charles Berling), however, knows of this treachery, and uses his knowledge to needle Diane, but doesn't spill the beans -- all the better to control her.

The Tokyo negotiations go well, and Diane flirts with Herve in an attempt to perhaps buy his silence, but he's already sleeping with his interpreter, Kaori (Abi Sakamoto). Back in Paris, they hold a meeting with Elaine (Gina Gershon), who represents Demonlover, an American company also trying to acquire Tokyo Anime. Diane sabotages the deal by accusing Demonlover of operating Hellfire Club, an illegal and unsimulated pay-per-view torture site.

At this point, hidden loyalties come to the fore. Diane is ordered to steal Elaine's computer files, a move that ends disastrously, with a bloody corpse on the floor. But when she awakes the next morning, all traces of violence have disappeared.

Did Diane imagine it? Or is she she now imagining it never happened? Many things in the film seem to reverse themselves, as the formerly aggressive Diane allows herself to be dominated by her put-upon secretary, Elise (Chloe Sevigny). Soon she finds herself a prisoner of the Hellfire Club, in a role reversal familiar to those who are clients at certain Roppongi clubs, but one not necessarily explained by the film.

"Demonlover" is an ambitious piece of work, but it's not always coherent. The breakdown of the storyline halfway through mirrors illogical disruptions in other films such as the mysterious blue box in "Mulholland Drive," or the breathing TV in "Videodrome." But while both those films clearly demarcate their dives into the subconscious and surreal, "Demonlover" is a bit more vague about where it's going. The labyrinthine plots involving various conniving corporate rivals continue to unravel, as if the plot's still moving forward on the same tracks, even though it went off the rails a reel back. A more impressionistic work may have suited the director better; as is, the conventional thriller aspects in the first half create a need for resolution that Assayas ignores at his peril.

It's certainly a good-looking film: Assayas has seen the future, and it's Shiodome, all gleaming metal and glass, cool and inhuman, fascist architecture that begrudges the humans passing through it. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir keeps everything in sleek blues and chilly grays while creating an isolationist riposte to the warm and fuzzy Tokyo of "Lost In Translation." Assayas finds the realm of designer hotels just as alienating, but doesn't suggest any human connection to balance it. Indeed, the probing, amp-blasted soundtrack by Sonic Youth only increases the angst-factor.

Of course, the Sonic Youth connection also brings to mind Richard Kern, the NYC-filmmaker who has long been associated with the band, and whose grainy short films of arty sado-masochism have a much higher shock and/or titillation value than anything Assayas' amoral suits are bidding over.

Indeed, the "shocking" content here -- excerpts from a CineMagic S&M video, the typical hentai anime -- is all over-the-counter stuff at Tokyo video shops.

With shots of women in bondage, and its heroine-in-peril plotline common to so many Japanese S&M novels -- not to mention its advanced knowledge of hentai -- it seems like Assayas has more than a passing attraction to the realm of kink. It's surprising, then, that he seems unable to revel in it unabashedly. Instead, he tacks on a little moral caution to those who would deal in the buying and selling of sex, never realizing that his own film -- which boasts a promo pic of Nielsen all done up in vinyl straps and fishnets -- is also guilty as charged.

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