You know a topic is becoming popular and more accepted in the mainstream when a movie is made using the concept as its basic premise. It's happened before, with video games in "The Last Starfighter;" the Internet with movies like "War Games" and "The Net;" or even Dungeons and Dragons with "Flight of the Dragons." All these movies approach topics that, until that point, are all in the fringe of popular society and display it for the masses not as the feature, but as a plot point. So what, as Hitchcock called it, McGuffin does 2002's "Demonlover" put on display? Why manga porn, of course.
I'll let that sink in for a moment.
The film starts off masterfully, with a scene on a plane setting up the major players in the film without truly exposing their motivations. These characters could be anything from major brokers to government agents, for all we know, and they could be dealing with life-or-death issues. Upon arrival in whatever city they land in (the film never really sets up locations, and switches easily between French and English while globetrotting, further confounding this reviewer, which we'll talk more about in a moment) one of the lead characters is whisked away, robbed of her important legal documents, and left for dead in her car. The scene is wonderful, reminiscent of great spy thrillers like "The Spanish Prisoner" where the audience is left to figure out the story along with the lead characters. From there, however, the plot goes horribly awry.
We learn quickly that the documents that were stolen detailed the planned acquisition of a Japanese company that produces animated pornography. It seems the company that was carrying the documents was an intermediary for the buyer, however another animation distribution company is upset about the possible merger and wants to sabotage it to make sure their own supply doesn't get cut off. Follow all that? As ridiculous as it reads on paper, the actual execution is as silly, if not more so. The two sides seem to have populated the firm organizing the buy with double-agents who are all working to hinder the other, resulting in a confusing mess of uncharacterizations, a term I've just invented to belie actors who have no idea what's going on or what they are supposed to be doing in the grand scheme of a narrative.
Honestly, the ability to follow the plot is not essential in the film "Demonlover," because it's cast aside with about 45 minutes remaining, when the writer or filmmaker decided that it would be more interesting to explore the dark depths of Internet pornography and the concept of big-business pornographers. It seems that the American distributor is also linked to "Hell Fire Club," a torture site that features severe beatings for sexual gratification, outpacing the already twisted anime pornography. The film ends with a twist that was telegraphed a mile away for anyone who has ever seen "The Twilight Zone" and seemed completely pointless.
The film had some excellent ideas it could have gone with, including child pornography in manga, the subtle battle between two corporate entities, and even to explore the question of how far a person will go for money. I understand big business is justifiably named, I found the idea of killing over manga porn laughably ludicrous. There are good moments in the film, simple confrontations between two characters over the morality of business that reminded me, in a positive way, of the musings in "Glengary Glenn Ross" but they would be followed up by scenes that would go nowhere and ultimately be forgotten about by the time the film rolled around to its shocking conclusion, which I found utterly silly.
Furthermore, in the beginning of the movie, there are some great characters created. Connie Nielsen plays Diane, the focus of the film, as cold and calculating, even though she's getting over her head and knows it. Her introduction in the film is wicked for its corporate brutality; however her actions later in the film make absolutely no sense and are not set up in the film at all. Charles Berling plays Herve as another corporate pawn, a man who works because he's good at his job but whose passions lie elsewhere, namely in the bedroom. He, too, has a character shift late in the movie that I suppose was designed to make the narrative seem more grandiose, however left me shaking my head.
"Demonlover" is a stupid, silly movie that had a lot of potential. Rather than make a taught, believable film, the French filmmakers decided to give it a shocking twist at the end of a plot that had strayed far from its tight beginning. Part of the reason I'm so upset is that the film is beautifully stylish, well acted by the leads, and had such incredible potential that was flushed about half-way through the film by character shifts without motivation and a ridiculous shift in the plot. If "Demonlover" is the movie that introduces manga porn to the mainstream, my thought is that it needs to hide its head, not because it's weird and twisted, but to cover from the fallout from this film.
Artistically the video looks to have been created in a surreal style, with a washed-out color palette and wide lens, so it is hard to get a real grip on the tone of the transfer. Heavy doses of grain do appear and they become distracting during the few darker-scenes in the movie where they shimmer blue. I also noticed a small amount of edge enhancement, but it only distracted me during the beginning of the film. The movie and many of the extras are presented in Anamorphic widescreen.
The uncut version of "Demonlover" preserves the natural French/English/Japanese dialogue mix, with optional English subtitles. I mention optional because I had to manually turn them on when I started the movie, something that annoyed me tremendously. As far as the audio options available, there are two outstanding options and a decent third. The 6.1 dts soundtrack and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes sounded about the same to my ears, with each centering most of the action across the front three speakers with a few ancillary noises coming, mostly traffic and crowd along with music cues from the rears. The mixes are both very bass-heavy, causing my subwoofer and mains to get a workout, and not in a good way (more like a "neighbors calling the cops way). A DD 2.0 option is also included along with Spanish subtitles if you're so inclined.
Aside from the uncut version of "Demonlover," this set does have quite a few extra features, including a Trailer on the first disc, a list of Filmographies, and a selection of previews that look a hell of a lot better than "Demonlover," including "Millennium Mambo," "Noi Albino" and "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music" which I'm dying to review.
The second disc, with a Hell Fire Club theme, houses a featurette on how the torture scenes were shot and where the idea for the film came from, including interviews with the writer and director, all in French, and subtitled in English. It's a very revealing segment into the mind who would create a film like "Demonlover." The feature follows filming through rehearsals and last-minute corrections, and sits in on some of the sequences. It's nice to find out that on-location shooting in France is as big a pain as it is in the US, however, as Olivier Assayas fights a clock in a popular nightclub and tries to get his shooting done. About the only thing I didn't find out that I really wanted to know was where the idea came from for the movie, as this was more of a technical documentary.
The three leads in the movie, Connie Nielsen, Charles Berlin, and Chloe Sevigny give interviews on the film and acting in French cinema, talking character motivations and working in an Assayas. Everyone but Sevigny give their interviews in French with English subtitles. As opposed to most American extras that just rave about the process, Sevigny is like a breath of refreshing, clean air in criticizing the process. The Assayas segment uses some of the same footage as the featurette and answers the questions I was left with as to where the movie came from.
A complete feature, running about 30 minutes, goes into the scoring process for alt-rockers Sonic Youth and the direction they received from Assayas including live recording sessions. It was recorded on DV and looks terrible, but the 2.0 stereo sound comes through clean. Be warned, however, that you will want to turn the volume down in the beginning of the feature because it leaves up a horribly obnoxious sound for about a minute.
Assayas also gives an English interview after the film's American screening trying to explain the reason for his movie. He basically claims that the movie is geared for a younger audience that has changed its preferences from even alternative cinema. In place of a commentary, this interview is an excellent addition to this DVD set.
As you can tell, I wasn't impressed with "Demonlover" as a complete film. It had wonderful moments when I was excited for what was to come next, only to have those hopes crushed because of the red herrings the movie threw out. It's novel, approaches a subject that I don't know has ever been breeched in popular cinema before, and has an interesting twist, though one I didn't think too novel. The DVD set is stacked and won't disappoint burgeoning filmmakers who want to learn about a director on the outskirts of accepted cinematic culture's methods and techniques.