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Webs of Deceit

The dark side of international business oozes out in Demonlover.

The blood-spattered French thriller Demonlover offers about as blunt an indictment of international business culture as you'll see in any movie. With a dedication that borders on mania, writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Les Destinees) attacks what he sees as the greed, ruthless ambition and Byzantine chicanery lurking behind high-powered deal-making between multi-national conglomerates, barely letting his cold-blooded characters -- or the audience -- come up for air over the course of two relentless hours. In Assayas's dark view, the business world is not just corrupt; it's absolutely murderous. And don't you forget it.

The protagonist here, basically untouched by any hint of redemption, is an amoral corporate spy named Diane (American Connie Nielsen), who has insinuated herself into the three-way negotiations between a Japanese anime producer, a shadowy French company run by a shark named Volf and a group of ugly Americans who want to corner the world market in animated Internet pornography -- apparently a very hot commodity these days. Never mind the obvious symbolism -- the notion of Big Business as one huge, unspeakably obscene Web site. By the time Monsieur Assayas is done with us, we're also led to believe that CEOs are soulless killers, while their underlings are capable of any deception, no matter how low or violent. In view of the Enron mess and all of the other recent revelations about vast corporate malfeasance, Assayas's dystopian visions don't seem completely far-fetched. But he still requires us to believe that kidnapping and doping are commonplace business ploys, that biz-world lovemaking is all power play and that executives, when pressed to achieve, don't give a second thought to suffocating their rivals in hotel bathrooms. Mix in a bit of lesbian sex and some smoking handguns, add a vivid soundtrack by the hard-edged Sonic Youth, and the filmmaker's mission is accomplished: The ravenous beast of post-industrial capitalism has been exposed, bloody in fang and claw. If you're looking for satire or humor, don't bother. This thing's dead serious and boasts the high body count to prove it.

The main seduction of the film lies in its style: lots of flashy jump cuts and psychological manipulations, and the thoroughly French belief that narrative is best advanced by visual acrobatics. Even in its most overwrought and illogical moments -- and there are plenty of them -- Demonlover is great fun to watch. What movie lover worthy of the name could resist a frantic, nearly cubist squash game that doubles as a quest for domination? Or a hallucinatory business dinner in Tokyo, conducted in three languages, whose tense elegance barely conceals the vicious intentions of the diners? Assayas also shows an unfailing instinct for the casual horrors that can be produced by high-tech gadgetry. He bombards us with flashing TV images -- everything from George Bush defending his policies to spots for automobiles to scenes of conflagration -- and the cartoon sex he shows us on the Internet is full of cold, offhand savagery. In time, we eventually get to a secret Web site called "The Hellfire Club," pivotal to the plot, which is all about bondage, black vinyl and torture. As cautionary tales go, this one is ambitious indeed, equating, as it does, the instincts of smut peddlers with the goals of "legitimate" businesspeople.

The cast of characters, which amounts to a rogues' gallery, has some attractions of its own. Leading lady Nielsen, her beautifully sculpted face a mask of ice, is perfectly resolute as the mole who's living dangerously while drawing huge paychecks from both a French company and its American competitor. Her project partner, Hervé, played by Charles Berling, is the very picture of bullet-headed cynicism, and Chloë Sevigny hits the mark as Diane's oft-abused secretary who has some schemes of her own in mind. Best of all, there's Gina Gershon as a shallow, ruthless American deal-maker who means to simultaneously screw the French and the Japanese while not missing a minute of her Parisian shopping spree. With her catlike eyes and nasty little smirk, Gershon makes for a splendid villain -- right up to the moment when she and Nielsen duke it out in her hotel suite.

For all but the most devoted anarchists, a few leftover Reds and, say, radical opponents of the World Trade Organization, Assayas's view of international business will probably seem excessively sour (if not completely paranoid), and the demonic machinations of his assorted grabbers and grifters -- all of them gotten up in expensive suits -- will look downright cartoonish. But as slightly dotty fantasy, Demonlover works pretty well despite its lapses and bafflements, especially if you're in a conspiratorial frame of mind. When you visit the concession stand, be sure to test your Coke for various poisons.

 
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