In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
We look forward to bringing you a classic of French New Extremity, 2002’s Demonlover.
Over the course of this column we’ve covered a lot of niches of cult cinema, one of the most niche and influential though is that of the French New Extremity, which we’ll be exploring today. It’s an area of cinema we as film people rarely get to talk about, which is weird because it’s such an exciting, interesting, and more to the point influential area of cinema. Today we’re going to look at one of the earliest progenitors of the movement, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover.
Demonlover is a 2002 thriller with a multinational cast including Americans like Chloë Sevigny, Japanese actors like Nao Ōmori, of course French people like Charles Berling, and the lead actress, Connie Nielsen, being Danish. The film is also, as you might imagine from a movement called French New Extremity, a lot to deal with. As I write, it’s almost a week to the minute since I watched the movie and still, whenever I think about it I’m reminded of the ever unfolding sense of horror and dread that pervades much of the second half of the film. It reminds of films that would come out subsequently like Kill List and Hereditary but it’s drawing from films like Rosemary’s Baby, Hour of the Wolf, The Parallax View, and The Wicker Man in terms of the increasing noose tightening around our character that you don’t notice as much as on a rewatch because you also are so wrapped up in the paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a mode of storytelling that I’m rather fond of.
Before we really get into it though some context is needed. At various points in history, a certain idea of what French cinema is has pervaded the public consciousness and the cinematic criticism in France. This idea is one of very prim and proper cinema. Adaptations of famous books, films about old people talking over wine and spaghetti bolognese, just very nice and polite films. The other day I had the pleasure of seeing Night Moves, the 1975 film with Gene Hackman, and they have a joke about Éric Rohmer films being too boring and artsy. It’s an idea that is very popular to people who don’t really watch French films. They think they’re all going to be Amelie. Anyone who knows anything about French cinema, though, knows how bullshit this is. Even the directors of Amelie made Delicatessen. Predictably, at several times in history, French filmmakers have said ‘well this is bullshit, let’s actively make films that transgress what the bourgeois mainstream considers ‘acceptable cinema’’. The aforementioned Éric Rohmer came out of the French New Wave which was very directly this. The French New Extremity came out of a similar place. The difference is that a lot of these filmmakers were already established figures in French film. Claire Denis, whose 2001 effort, Trouble Every Day, is a key text in this movement, had just previously made her most celebrated work, Beau Travail, a masterpiece in my opinion. Assayas released Demonlover in 2002 and he’d previously made waves with Irma Vep and Paris Awakens. The interesting thing is despite addressing increasingly extreme content compared to their previous films, these newer films put just as much of a focus on tone and formal exploration as anything they’d made previously. Interestingly, Irma Vep set up Assayas’ interest in East Asian culture. It’s a relevant genre because, as has happened many times before, these breakout sub genres have their dumbed down equivalents in America, no doubt influenced by the breakout genres themselves, as Giallo has Slashers, so too does French New Extremity have Hostel, the Saw sequels, and other splat pack films. We would later see films in this the French New Extremity take a harder turn into being nastier and nastier with films like Martyrs and Frontier(s).
Demonlover though, as disturbing and extreme as it can get actually is fairly disciplined for most of its runtime as far as violence and gore go. Demonlover is important to the movement in that it is transgressive constantly, and pushed the movement forward and pushed French cinema into areas it previously hadn’t gone. Denis’ Trouble Every Day was more about sex and bloodletting mixing, and in a similar way to David Cronenberg’s Crash, showing these things and asking you to focus far more on how sad these transgressive elements are to the characters than any explicitly transgressive element in and of themselves. The point is that it acts like these transgressive elements are normal. Which probably pushes the envelope far more than any movie that makes a big song and dance about being extreme. Demonlover, on the other hand, focuses on doing the same thing but for pornography, extreme pornography. This is not a film to take your kids to as you may already have imagined.
The plot revolves around a French conglomerate competing with an American media company for the rights to a cutting edge Japanese manga pornography company. The fact that for most for the film it plays itself as a pretty straight corporate thriller in the vein of Micheal Clayton without ever really making a point of the pornography being extreme, which it is, says a lot about what the film is doing. It is a very compelling corporate thriller about changing loyalties and the cut throat, superficial atmosphere of the corporate world, but as the film slowly starts to unravel, that’s when the film gets really exciting. There’s a certain point where the film starts attacking the viewer and the film just reaches another level of exciting and provocative. I just love shit like that and although I saw the final jab of the knife coming in its final scenes, (like, yes, I too, have seen Videodrome), it still hit with all the weight it should have done because the rest of the film around it did the job of the escalating paranoia.
Since Demonlover, Assayas has become known for more slow moving, intimate, character dramas like Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, but still for me this is the kind of cinema I want to see more of, provocative and exciting. I love films like this, they’re what make me feel like I’m watching something I haven’t seen before in form and content.