Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Aside from a shared fondness for handheld camera, Olivier Assayas and Michael Winterbottom would seem to have little in common. Whereas Winterbottom has switched genres, modes, and locales with every film, Assayas has only once diverged from intimate Gallic dramas of love and friendship—until now, that is. The manipulative players in his controversial and confounding Demonlover whirl through the high-finance, mass-media multiverse of the Web, deal-making from Paris to Tokyo to an unidentified city that ought to be L.A. Winterbottom’s daring In This World is equally concerned with economic migrants, but of a lo-tech sort: It follows two impoverished Afghan youths on a desperate trek from a Pakistani refugee camp toward the beckoning service jobs of undocumented-alien London.

1996’s Irma Vep is the one previous film in which Assayas breached the boundaries of his own style, and Demonlover amplifies some of that movie’s themes. Both films star glamorous female outsiders—British-raised Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung and Danish-born Hollywood up-and-comer Connie Nielsen, respectively—as cat-suited provocateurs on the prowl. Diane (Nielsen) is introduced on a plane returning to Paris from Tokyo, and at first she seems to be merely the assistant of corporate honcho Volf (Jean-Baptiste Malartre). Then she injects a sedative into the Evian intended for junior executive Karen (Dominique Reymond), setting up the theft of the woozy woman’s briefcase. Karen is hospitalized, and the mysterious Diane takes over her contract talks, balefully observed by Karen’s apparently loyal aide, Elise (Chloë Sevigny in a role Assayas originally wrote for longtime collaborator Virginie Ledoyen).

Volf’s company is not negotiating for something lucrative but unphotogenic such as natural gas or ex-urban flex space. Instead, VolfGroup intends to gain a controlling interest in Tokyo Anime, the leading Japanese producer of “adult” animation and comics. Soon, Diane is back in Japan, where she and her colleague Hervé (Charles Berling) are shown an example of Tokyo Anime’s art. This moment recalls the one in Irma Vep that interjected a clip from The Heroic Trio, a real Hong Kong action film starring the real Maggie Cheung. This time, a different sort of high-pitched Asian fantasy appears on the screen—one in which a pretty young ‘toon is tied up and penetrated by an array of probing tendrils. (Designed to circumvent the Japanese ban on depicting genitalia, the tendril-sex flick is a genuine Japanimation genre.)

Back in Paris, Diane and Hervé meet with Elaine (Gina Gershon), who represents an American company that would like to distribute Tokyo Anime’s products. The animated porn would fit neatly with one of the U.S. firm’s Web sites, demonlover.com. The French executives believe that the distributor also runs the Hellfire Club, an interactive site that allows viewers to participate vicariously in the sexual torture of young women. The Americans deny any involvement in the clearly illegal site, but as nasty corporate infighting escalates into more savage forms of intrigue, it becomes clear—well, sort of—that the Hellfire Club is integral to the story.

In fact, clarity is not central to Demonlover’s method. Much like Irma Vep, the film is an open-ended riff on internationalism and what it means for France’s venerable but insular cinema. Add big bucks and “new media” and the scenario becomes a nightmare vision of Paris-based Vivendi’s attempt to merge with Universal Studios. None of Demonlover was shot in the United States, but Assayas cast American (or Americanized) actors in most of the major roles and—as in Irma Vep—devised situations in which English must be spoken. (It’s the common language, for example, of the French and Japanese executives.) In interviews, the writer-director has proclaimed his enthusiasm for David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, ominous dream thrillers whose narratives turn back on themselves. When not extolling some of the stranger Hollywood movies of recent years—and the stranger parts of ultimately conventional American flicks such as Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory—Assayas has also been working on the DVD release of the films of Situationist Guy Debord, no stranger to dream logic.

Demonlover’s Tokyo scenes can be seen as a companion piece to Sofia Coppola’s sweeter, shallower Lost in Translation. Each film glancingly explores Shibuya’s neon-and-vid-screen mediascape, and both feature lyrical/industrial scores by noted postpunkers. (Whereas Coppola enlisted Kevin Shields, Assayas got Sonic Youth.) But Demonlover is less dependent on music to cue viewers’ reactions, relying instead on unsettling sex and violence, shifting pictorial styles (created with various film stocks), and the long, fluid takes of cinematographer Denis Lenoir, who’s filmed five of Assayas’ eight features. (Indeed, the new movie’s virtuosic opening scene, set on an airliner, recalls the equally dazzling train sequence in the Lenoir-shot Late August, Early September.) As euros, yen, and dollars meld, the narrative fractures into paranoia and role-playing, video games and streaming video. The center—cinema—cannot hold.

You needn’t accept Assayas’ concerns to enjoy his film, however. With its sensuous images, jazzy edits, and silky camera movements, Demonlover is a pleasure to watch. Still, the movie does lack one of Irma Vep’s major virtues: humor. It’s hard to joke around when torture is a motif, and what’s at stake here is not merely the future of French cinema but the very nature of humanity in this era of media overload and global capitalism. The director has said that he’s starting from scratch with this movie, and the new Assayas does seem more severe and bombastic. As a visual stylist, however, he’s utterly assured, and that’s enough to commend Demonlover while waiting to see if its directors’ second career will be as interesting as his first.

Narratively, In This World

takes a simpler road than Demonlover: It’s just the story of two kids trying to get from one place to another. In between, however, are callous smugglers, implacable border guards, unforgiving deserts and mountains, and refugee camps that are essentially prisons. Director Michael Winterbottom, writer Tony Grisoni, and their crew didn’t make this journey only on paper. They actually traveled the entire route, scripting and improvising as they tracked Jamal and Enayat (the nonprofessional lead actors’ names onscreen and off-) across Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey and then on to Europe. In the process, the film’s details and even title changed. The phrase “in this world,” which proves unexpectedly poignant, was improvised by Jamal.

Winterbottom has dealt with the relationship between Britain and more troubled locales before, in Welcome to Sarajevo and Wonderland, and the results were glib and even a bit smug. Here the director avoids any risk of repeating those miscalculations by taking a lean, near-documentary approach and keeping the focus steadily on the Afghans and their peers. (There are no more European-born Europeans in this movie than in Dirty Pretty Things.) The film begins with statistics about the Shamshatoo camp in Peshawar, home to some 50,000 Afghan refugees—including ones like Jamal, who were born there and thus have never seen the country from which they are officially exiles. When Jamal and Enayat hit the road, an animated map tracks their movements, providing a geography lesson as well as a sense of the pilgrims’ progress.

On a trek financed by Jamal’s uncle, the refugees travel by truck, bus, and foot, encountering both setbacks and unexpected boons. At 14 or 15, Jamal is the younger of the two, but he’s also the savvier, with some knowledge of English. (Enayat, in fact and in the film, speaks only Pashtu.) Once in Turkey, the voyagers are sealed into a container that’s loaded on a ship for a risky trip to Trieste. In Italy, Jamal finds himself alone. He manages to get the money for a train to France, where he ends up in the notorious (and since closed) Sangatte refugee camp. From there, it’s only a short, if dangerous, trip through the Chunnel to Britain.

Shot by Marcel Zyskind on digital video and using only available light, In This World suggests Iranian art cinema’s merging of fiction and documentary. Unlike the work of many Iranian directors, however, the film is far from contemplative, with Winterbottom and editor Peter Christelis establishing a propulsive rhythm with short scenes and frequent cuts. A movie that travels from Pakistan to London in 88 minutes has no time for musing or digression, and only a few moments for characterization. This is the story of a voyage more than of the people who make it. Winterbottom may have cast real refugees, but he uses them as exemplars of all the people currently on the move from the Third World to the First.

Oddly, the movie that prepared Winterbottom for this venture was not Welcome to Sarajevo but his previous one, 24 Hour Party People. Both films are loose, improvisational, and nonchalant about blurring fact and fiction. 24 Hour Party People was funnier, and it had the advantage of dealing with history, albeit of a recent sort. In This World, the second in the Sundance Channel’s four-film indie- and

foreign-cinema series, mixes docudrama and guerrilla cinema, shot sometimes with and other times without official blessing. It alternately documents, anticipates, or is overtaken by real events. Jamal and Enayat were recruited to star, for example, on the assumption that they would return to Pakistan when the shoot was finished. They did, but Jamal then made his way back to London without the benefit of a film crew; the end title reporting that he has been granted temporary refuge in Britain is for real. In This World is a bold, moving attempt to convey the plight of contemporary refugee, and it’s no reproach to Winterbottom to note that, in the end, his film was trumped by reality. CP