September 18, 2003

Looking At Assayas: Old and New Works

assayas.jpgIt is a big weekend this weekend in New York for French director Olivier Assayas. A retrospective of his work at MoMA begins (running from Thursday through Sunday) and his newest film, Demonlover finally gets a wider theatrical release (after a few selected screenings at Walter Reade last year). Cinecultist brings you a reprint of her musings on the film, which we've seen twice but still don't entirely understand, to be published shortly in Reverse Shot's Assayas symposium issue. For further Assayas thoughts, check out an extended article by Dennis Lim in this week's Village Voice, a review by J. Hoberman and Cinecultist's analysis of Maggie Cheung's star persona in one of his earlier films, Irma Vep. Assayas introduces MoMA's nine-film exhibition with a screening of Les Destinées today, Sept. 18.

“Does this turn you on?” On the surface this titillating question, posed by corporate spy Connie Nielsen to a rival, in Olivier Assayas’s most recent film Demonlover, refers to the illicit website coveted by the ruthless characters, but it could also be posited by Assayas himself to his audience. Does the thought of attending European art film, with its complex plots, flashing subtitles, images of anonymous urban life, and beautiful people performing bizarre sexual fetishes on each other get you hot? Demonlover delivers all of these reliable Euro-indie art-house movie conventions certain to arouse a specific audience subset, yet the movie is not wholly the sum total of its parts. In Demonlover, this very appealing surface veneer masks the more complex, and often unsettling core.

Intriguingly, a number of the actors in this French film, like Nielsen and Chloë Sevigny, do not speak French as their first language, yet the script calls upon them to be convincing savvy international businesswomen. The fluidity of language in this urban setting creates another masking layer in the film’s narrative.

As a thriller plot point, it makes sense that an assassin and spy could adopt any pertinent language, whether it be English, French, or Japanese, at a moment’s notice. Yet Assayas’s comfort in directing dialogue not in his first language draws attention to his choice to set the primary action in France. Somehow, the scenes where Sevigny barks out her annoyance at her ice queen boss in French has more gravitas, more mystique and more tension than when she lapses into her crudely natural East Coast American accent. Assayas understands this crucial difference (angry blonde in heels speaking French = erotic) and in utilizing it, plays with our expectations for sexy art film. American or Danish or Japanese actors speaking in French only intensifies the European art film-ness of Demonlover and language in this film, like visual queues/porn clichés, becomes another signifier of arousal.

However the most unsettling question posed by demonlover is not whether these scenarios turn us on, but rather if in being aroused we’re then implicated in a responsibility for their perpetuation. If you find torture porn exploitative, then does consuming it, even in a relatively innocent sexy art film narrative setting, make you a slightly culpable for its continued creation? The final images needle the viewer for at least the beginning of an answer.

Posted by karen at September 18, 2003 9:20 AM