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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Sex as a dangerous game


In town to promote two of his recent films, director Olivier Assayas found himself in a curious position.

News photo
Olivier Assayas

"Demonlover," his 2002 film that largely baffled the critics and infuriated audiences, had a distributor and was soon to open; "Clean," the critically acclaimed film which won the best actress award for his ex-wife Maggie Cheung at Cannes in 2004, was screening for one (sold-out) day only at Espace Image, but had yet to find a distributor. Go figure. "Demonlover" is a tough sell, but Assayas -- a former critic -- knows how to talk a good film.

What were your influences on this film?

Part of the inspiration for this film stems from "Videodrome." "Demonlover," of course, deals with a completely different world, but it also deals with the relationship between fantasy and reality and crossing the frontier between those two worlds. Cronenberg has been a very big influence, ever since as a teenager I saw "Shivers" and "Rabid."

I was surprised by that point where you take a leap beyond logic, where the film's narrative just kind of falls apart.

There's a breaking point, sure, but I think there are many incidents that lead to that point along the way. It shifts layers gradually, and keeps on changing layers. Like in video games, I suppose.

Was that part of your intent, to mirror the process of video games?

To mirror it? No. But certainly to reflect it, in the sense that sometimes I feel video games are a more realistic representation of our world than linear movie narratives! (Laughs.) I think we live in a nonlinear world, a world where we keep on circulating through various layers of perception, layers of images. I think it's part of the modern experience to find one's own way through that maze.

Real life doesn't make a lot of sense, but people seem to expect movies to do so.

Well, it's part of what the entertainment industry's about, giving very pacifying notions of what the world is. I think there is no such thing as "sense," meaning it's something that's constantly shifting. It's always been that way, but I think it's gotten worse! (Laughs.) We are living in a world that's increasingly fluid. Before we had ideologies with which to structure it; artificially, but at least we had some sort of grid we could put on the world. Now the grid is gone, and we are left with a lot of question marks. So I think linear narrative in film just gives people the illusion that they understand how the world functions, that the world is much more simple and understandable than it actually is.

Well, with ideology discredited in the world, we see people turning toward fundamentalism. You could say that's also happening in cinema.

I think we're at a very low point. Modern cinema, at the beginning of the '60s, shook the structure of narrative cinema, and invented new ways of telling stories. And for a few years, you could structure films in more daring and ambitious ways. Like Antonioni did. And these films were part of the mainstream. People could relate to some form of abstract narrative. They accepted the idea that you could connect cinematic images the way you would words or verses in poetry.

You can look at Bunuel's films in the '70s, which were surrealist, hence deliberately nonsensical, and the critics loved them. But there seems a greater resistance to that now.

I think it's accepted when it's within a genre framework. Look at "The Matrix." But if you put elements of genre film into something different -- like describing the way money and images circulate in the modern world -- then it's disturbing. But art is about creating connections between things you should supposedly not connect.

The film's final image is quite pessimistic, implying that even torture is something you can just have on in the background. Do you think viewers have become that jaded to visual representations of violence?

I think so. It's what virtual reality -- this nonstop immersion in a world of images -- ends up creating in kids today. They end up having a deeper relationship with some kind of fantasy world they live in on their computer screen than to reality. Reality is less real, less true. Anything that is genuinely human is not interesting enough. But people think about [this issue] in terms that are not correct. On one side you have reactionaries, calling for more censorship -- it's quite hypocritical, because ultimately these people are on the side of the big corporations who are profiting from these images. On the other side you have liberals who say it doesn't really matter, it's just images, they don't have an effect. But I disagree. I'm a filmmaker, of course I believe in the power of images!

On that note, I heard you had to cut some of the Hellfire Club imagery after Cannes, because it was too much for some people . . .

Well, I'm not exactly an expert in sex and violence. When I had to describe that Internet site, I shot a lot of material, and I wanted it to be scary. So I kept making it look rougher in the editing. Then when it screened at Cannes, everybody over-reacted, and the only thing they were talking about was the violence in those scenes. Which was not the point. It felt wrong in terms of balance, the images were too disturbing. So I kind of toned it down. One of the themes of the film was to show sex and violence as a commodity. I mean, when I wrote the script around 2000, the Net was the driving force of the Western economies, all based on abstract money. And when you went on the Net, what do you see? Eighty percent of it is pornography. We live in a world that's ruled by commerce; it's not governments that are running the world we live in, it's corporations.



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