To be human is to live with the assumption that, somewhere out there, other people are having more fun than you. These other people sit in VIP lounges enjoying better food, better sex, better clothes, better conversation and better access to all the fun stuff that the world has to offer. This assumption underpins literature’s obsession with what has come to be known as the demimonde (literally the ‘half-world’).
In the 19th Century, operas such as Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and novels such as Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias (1848) and Le Demi-Monde (1855) described a sub-culture where the bourgeois values of respectability were flouted in favour of a lifestyle based upon decadent self-indulgence, pleasure and self-destructive hedonism. The success of these operas and novels reflect the fear amidst the European middle classes that all of their wealth and their social status came at the cost of being locked out of a world that was much more fun than the world they knew and created around them. The demimonde is as much a fantasy as it is a paranoid delusion; the tendency of the demimondaines to reach a sticky end represents the profound ambivalence that the middle classes felt about their own fantasies of hedonism and rebellion.
This ambivalence continued to hold true as 19th demimondes devoted to sensual indulgence transformed into demimondes based upon fantasies of power and influence. The 20th Century demimondaines were not consumptive courtesans but criminals, business leaders, Soviet officials and intelligence operatives. These were the people who were thought to be the true leaders of the world, those who dwell behind the velvet ropes and who get to have all the fun.
Joe Wright’s Hanna is an espionage thriller that draws extensively upon the idea of the demimonde as part of an exploration of the coming-of-age process. For Wright and his teenaged protagonist Hanna, the world is but a series of partly overlapping demimondes: the world of childhood is the world of the forest and the world of adulthood is the world of espionage. Each of these worlds has its own inhabitants and the viewpoints of these inhabitants are not only perfectly adapted to those worlds, they also help define the character of that world and the beliefs required to survive within it. However, as Hanna attempts to escape childhood and become an adult, the artificial nature of these demimondes becomes increasingly clear and ‘growing up’ becomes not so much a rite of passage as a choice between different – but equally flawed – ways of seeing the world.