I recently re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) for the first time since taking up criticism as an activity. I originally read the novella as a very straight-forward conceptual breakthrough story in which a Victorian comes to realise the literally horrifying nature of existence. However, upon further reflection it strikes me that, while sticking to this interpretation of the novella, there are three possible insights to take away from the book :
- Firstly, that existence outside of the confines of civilisation is horrific. Under this interpretation, the desiccated world of doilies, influential aunts and ancient men we see in the opening section of the novella are a price we have to pay in order to protect ourselves and escape from the Horror of the Hobbesian state of nature.
- Secondly, that existence is whatever humanity makes of it. Rather than building a new world or exporting the values of the European elites, colonialism has in fact opened the way for the rapaciously greedy to create a sort of hell on Earth. A hell in which a man’s capacity to kill elephants and enslave the local population makes him a great man. When Kurtz dies, he groans not for the horror in the world, but the horror he and his imitators have unleashed.
- Thirdly, that Kurtz’s groans are a moment of conceptual break-through. Under this view, humanity is trapped between the anguish and misery of being and the terrifying nothingness of non-being. Whether a Dutch merchant or a Congolese fisherman, the dilemma is the same even if we do not necessarily realise it. Kurtz, by venturing far outside the confines of his native culture, has realised the truth about existence. A truth that horrifies him even as he dies.
These three different interpretations represent different solutions to the question of why existence is so horrifying : Is existence tainted by our actions? Is it something that is present in the world but escaped from thanks to civilisation? Or is it something that permeates all of existence, but which we only catch a glimpse of from time to time when we are paying attention?
Critically panned at the time of its release, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is an attempt to provide an answer to this question by considering not only the ways in which humans treat each other but also the ways in which human civilisation deals with the savage nature of existence through its media and its institutions.
The film opens with an image of 21st Century luxury. People asleep in the first class compartment of an inter-continental flight between Tokyo and Paris. The cabin is an oasis of calm neutral colours. Successful, attractive people sit dictating memos to their PAs while others sleep and attractive women flit about tidying up after them with smiles on their faces. By all the standards of the Western world, this is a civilised space : Modern technology allowing people to move about the planet at great speed and in great luxury. But even this civilised space shows glimpses of a different image of humanity. The overhead monitors show the explosions of an action film. In the morning, Diane (Connie Nielsen) poisons the water of her colleague Karen (Dominique Reymond). Once the plane touches down (in a beautiful modern terminal naturally), Karen starts to feel the effects of the poison and passes out as a pair of men bundle her into the trunk of her car. The way has been cleared, Diane is now in charge of the project.
The project is the proposed merger of the film-makers TokyoAnime with an American online pornography company known as Demonlover. When the French brokerage team visit Tokyo, they are shown around the offices of TokyoAnime. The Japanese produce hentai films full of young nubile ninja warriors being raped by naughty tentacles or killing things in their underwear. We are told that not only are these films hugely successful, they are also ‘the best’.
The Japanese then wine and dine the French in a number of Japanese bars and clubs. Places that seem to be entirely defined by their artificiality. From the swirling neon lights to the orange-haired drag-queen doorwhores and the automaton-like dancers. All of them seem to be carefully constructed by the furiously active video and audio technocrats, mixing sounds and images backstage. If Kurtz saw the true nature of existence in that Congolese jungle, then you would think that Diane and her group were as far away from such brutal reality as it is possible to get.
Indeed, the film sets up a comparison between the artificial nature of 21st Century life (the things we do, the way we act, the spaces we inhabit) and the equally constructed nature of virtual reality, whether it is online or in a game. For example, after it is discovered that Diane is a corporate spy planted by a rival company, she sits down with her boss over dinner and engages in a bizarre back and forth in which she argues that identity is entirely constructed and that nobody knows anyone other than in terms of sweeping generalisations that more of less apply.
– What did you see?
– The way you operated. I admire you.
– You haven’t seen anything. No one ever sees anything. Never. they watch… but they don’t understand. What do you admire? Come on. Tell me. I’m listening.
– You set a goal and that’s where you are.
– Where am I? Tell me. It’s interesting. Of course, when you have to say it with words it becomes less clear. But people judge using vague generalities… they do… it’s easier.
– That’s not what I meant.
– Yes you did. I’m calculated and immoral. It excites you and scares you at the same time. But what do you know? You don’t know me.
Of course, Diane is quite correct. People engage with each other on a day to day basis through a set of assumptions. A folk psychology made up of ideas cobbled together on the assumption that other people are basically like you augmented by certain common-sense notions about human behaviour and a few poorly digested scientific theories you once read about in a self-help book or a glossy magazine. These ideas not only distort how we see each other but how we see ourselves too. For Diane, we exist in an immense hall of mirrors; We see shades and reflections but we never see anything real and even if we did we would be incapable of recognising it. As a spy, Diane’s cover identity was carefully constructed but completely unreal. So are all of our identities, Diane seems to suggest.
Indeed, the film goes out of its way to draw comparisons between the characters and videogames. At one point, one of Diane’s colleagues pulls a gun on her and carries out a mock execution. A few minutes later, Diane is giving her a lift home so that she doesn’t get too wet in the rain. At another point, Diane breaks into someone’s hotel room in order to steal their laptop. The person returns home early and a bloody fight takes place. When Diane is eventually clubbed to the ground and left in a pool of her own blood, she wakes up a few hours later clean and in perfect health. In the video game of Diane’s existence she merely lost a life. Start over at the last save point.
The deal between Demonlover and TokyoAnime stalls when someone leaks the information that Demonlover run the secret torture site Hell Fire Club. In this site, people write in with their fantasies and then watch as girls are subjected to bespoke torture. The website itself is the kind of utterly impractical and over-designed affair that blighted early depictions of the internet. But its imagery is very similar to that scene in the Japanese night clubs.
Fascinatingly though, while Hell Fire Club tortures real women, the women are invariably dressed as fictional characters such as Wonder Woman, Lara Croft or Barbarella. When the women are not genre icons they are made to look like fictionalised images, either by looking like something out of Final Fantasy or by swathing them in head-to-foot PVC. Hell Fire Club’s customers are not content with fake or consensual torture. They want the real thing, but only with women made to look like fictitious characters.
Demonlover’s world is one where Hell Fire Club’s complex ontological footing is played out on a grand canvas : The actual and the virtual come to resemble each other to the point of being completely indistinguishable. The film’s characters deal in virtual depictions of the real world but in a completely unreal landscape where even human interaction is based upon artificiality and deception. Diane’s chastisement of her boss stems ultimately from the belief that, much like the Nietszchean God, Truth is dead. There is no ‘real me’, there is no such thing as authenticity or naturalness or honesty. Everything is conceit and tacitly accepted lies. In such a world, the preferences of Hell Fire Club’s customers make sense as for them, real and fictitious are matters of arbitrary preference.
However, as interesting the idea of the death of truth might be, it is ultimately shown to be incorrect within the context of the film.
From almost the opening shot, Demonlover is filled with images of brutality, depravity and violence. The overheard monitors on the plane show images of death and destruction, a simple business deal results first in someone being drugged and dumped in a car boot, then a fight to the death and then, ultimately, someone being tortured via webcam. Even the anime company deals in images of absurd violence and sex including a female character being raped by a big scaly eel. Images of people drawing in the design studio are accompanied by sound effects from a porn film. Scenes of a woman being bundled into a car boot are accompanied by pleasant music and birds cheeping. Violence and sex utterly suffuse the world of Demonlover. No matter how artificial and constructed the world of the characters becomes, it is still filled with death, rape and torture. Kurtz may only have seen the horror as he was being carried out of the jungle, but the horror was with him when he first stepped off the boat. It was in Holland and England. It was in the Congo before the white man first stepped foot there. It is everywhere. The truth of existence is brutality and death. We cannot escape this single truth.
The film drives this point home with blunt force. Through the use of concert footage by the band Soulfly. One of the most technically incompetent live bands ever to walk the planet, Soulfly’s front-man Max Cavalera riffed on the same themes of tribal primitivism he did while a part of Sepultura :
Back to the primitive
Fuck all your politics
How it used to be
Check your reality
Cavalera’s conjecture that primitivism is somehow better than the current technocracy is, of course, arbitrary at best and sophomorically nihilistic at best. Metal bands tend to be conspicuously absent from most primitive cultures; the dreadlocks and tattoos of Cavalera’s primitivism are no more authentic than the pink, green and orange plastic hair of Tokyo’s club denizens. And yet Cavalera acknowledges the presence of the primitive and the savage. The neatly organised moshing area at his concert providing the perfect opportunity for people to taste this primitivism within a safe and supportive context.
Also powerful is the film’s final shots. A teenager, having stolen his father’s credit card in order to gain access to the Hell Fire Club sits doing his homework. On his monitor is Diane’s face. In his hands a model of DNA. Torture is so prevalent in this teenager’s world that it is part of the furniture. Like DNA, it is unseen but its traces are everywhere.