Poised seductively at the remote intersection of sophistication and sleaze, the techno-thriller Demonlover moves on the sleek, impermanent ground of a William Gibson novel, where cities are wired like a circuit board and humans have the hearts of their machines. A cult classic by design, complete with a hip international cast, a Sonic Youth score, and references to cutting-edge anime and cyberporn, the film dignifies its silly plot with a cool, hypnotic tone and a beautifully textured slant on the modern world. At its best, French writer-director Olivier Assayas' gorgeous muddle recalls Nicolas Roeg's 1976 science-fiction masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth, another self-consciously arty film that gets lost in ill-defined corporate intrigue, yet gains in mood what it forfeits in coherency. In lieu of anyone as transfixing as David Bowie, Assayas settles for an even more inscrutable substitute in corporate mole Connie Nielsen, a leggy ice queen who changes loyalties as quickly as she changes beds. Either a heroic villain or a villainous hero, depending on the viewer's perspective, Nielsen finds the right home in a cutthroat media environment ruled by duplicitous power-brokers in search of the next big thing. After poisoning and incapacitating her immediate superior, Nielsen takes a decisive position at VolfGroup, a powerful French conglomerate that's preparing to sign a merger with TokyoAnime, a Japanese company set to hit a lucrative market with pornographic 3-D manga. Once the merger goes through, two Internet rivals, Mangatronics and Demonlover, begin battling for exclusive rights to VolkGroup's images. Working as an operative for Mangatronics, Nielsen tries to undermine the competition from within, exposing its connection to an interactive torture web site called "The Hellfire Club." At every turn, her ruthlessness is matched by a sleazy business partner (Charles Berling), a well-connected and antagonistic assistant (Chloë Sevigny), and Demonlover's straight-shooting American executive (Gina Gershon). It may take multiple viewings to make sense of Assayas' convoluted yarn, which would be complicated enough without so many maddeningly opaque characters to pin down. Rather than sweat the details, the best approach to Demonlover is to read it like a Raymond Chandler story, with the twisty and nonsensical plot serving as a mere passageway into Assayas' evocative, image-crazed underworld. Adding another curve to his exceptionally versatile repertoire–with credits that include delicate character pieces (Cold Water; Late August, Early September), an audacious movie-movie (Irma Vep), and the austere three-hour period piece Sentimental Destinies–Assayas excels at painting vibrant, enveloping worlds for the camera. Though it takes itself a bit too seriously (hip collegians will find plenty of grist for their Jean Baudrillard papers), Demonlover may be Assayas' airiest work to date, an intriguing trifle that leaves its considerable pleasures to lounge around on the surface.

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