There is no doubt that the Internet has influenced the way we cultivate and navigate relationships with others. Interactive social, romantic, and sexual media platforms are built to be addictive, desensitizing and harnessed for individual gain — but the trend within contemporary society to blame these applications for the decline of authentic relationships is thoroughly overworked. It is the capital flows of our neoliberal society that have seeped into and augmented our relational identities, producing asynchronicities that are magnified online. Online romance mirrors the fictitious ways value is created in business finance, as millennials have become expertly skilled in convincing themselves and others of authenticity that simply isn’t there. As Antonia Pont perfectly summed in The Lifted Brow’s Digital Intimacies edition, “your absence animates whatever might be your presence” and “we love within the forcefield of this closer and apart.” Two films from Static Vision’s Hyperlinks Film Festival explore the type of connections that flow from this relational forcefield both online and IRL.
Oliver Assayas’ cyber-noir Demonlover (2002) follows informant Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen) as she attempts to infiltrate and sabotage a French investor’s acquisition of Demonlover, a Japanese hentai company. Identities and allegiances begin to waiver dangerously as Diane’s colleagues, Hervé (Charles Berling) and Elise (Chloë Sevigny), cotton on to her plan. Lina Mannheimer’s documentary Mating (2019) observes the online dating habits of two young Swedish millennials through their respective social media platforms. The experiment takes an unexpected turn when Naomi and Edvin develop a relationship of their own. Assayas uses formal techniques – editing, cinematography – to capture contemporary reality using different volumes, speeds and densities of relational flow. Through this, Demonlover’s post-cinematic formalism shares similarities with the real-life romantic and sexual relationships of Mannheimer’s subjects, both hinting at why authentic romantic and sexual relationships are believed to be on the decline.
In Demonlover and Mating, the forcefield between the presence and absence of the protagonists’ exchanges is vast – covering continents with different time-zones, languages, and cultural idiosyncrasies. During a business lunch, Diane and Hervé, talking through a translator, question the use of underage life-models for Demonlover’s sexually perverse animations. The Demonlover executives explain that the lack of pubic hair on their female characters is due to cultural preference and reassure that their films exhibit a “fantasy world”. But when Diane later discovers Hell Fire Club – an interactive, real-time sexual torture site hidden deep inside the Demonlover website – this statement of reassurance throws fantasy and reality into flux. In Mating, Tinder opens up Naomi and Edvin’s dating pool and through international Skype exchanges that defy conventional time-schedules, the two help formulate each other’s responses to potential matches. This romantic and sexual coaching, paired with Naomi and Edvin’s awareness of Mannheimer’s surveillance, significantly influences their interactions in a way that is structurally similar to those of the women trapped in the Hell Fire Club – as both films show how anonymous presences hidden behind screens influence the acts of real life people.
In both films, the Internet accelerates communication and allows exchanges to be received in real-time. “Appearing available, to the mostly-unavailable, who want you to be available” as Pont would say, relies on a reality in which relational boundaries become controllable by others or simply cease to exist. At the beginning of Naomi and Edvin’s relationship, Mannheimer notes that during eight days the two sent each other over 3000 messages between 7 am and 3-5 am. Bombarded with messages at all hours of the day, Naomi and Edvin demand each other’s time despite the impact it has on their day-to-day schedules. The hasty development of their relationship quickly plateaus after this whirlwind digital encounter reaches a resolution too poor for either to make out. As filmmaker and Internet theorist Hito Steyerl explains, whilst some romance scammers – similar to the Tinder and Instagram profiles of Naomi and Edvin – go for volume and speed to capture the attention of as many potential partners as possible, other scammers, like Diane’s illusive colleagues and the owners of Hell Fire Club, “opt for a more organised and long-term approach.” In Demonlover, the viewer is drip-fed narrative information through the carefully considered exchanges of its characters – despite the aim of competing investors to gain as much intelligence about the other as quickly as possible. A feeling of sedation develops despite the stress of its time-pressured exchanges: throughout the film, Diane is sedated and moved to different locations, and the intervals between her lucidity and location grows rapidly as she dives deeper into the digital infrastructure of Demonlover.
The sheer density of the forcefield between presence and absence in Demonlover and Mating is revealed when the interactions between their protagonists fall into unsettling depths that rupture realities. Running out of topics to discuss but still craving intimacy through the others emotional vulnerability, Naomi and Edvin download a sexually explicit truth or dare game to help with this exchange. This relational practice is often used as a mask – providing an opportunity to ask risky questions about taboo subjects without being directly implicated in the response. The intensity builds after the couple’s second IRL meeting, with Naomi writing Edwin a long-winded letter detailing her scruples of his feelings by overinterpreting his reactions during the trip into threats against her self-worth. Their short interaction is recast by Naomi into a romance novel, a long-form hyperbole which according to Steyerl opens the possibility to “imagine something different from the drab repetitiveness of reproductive labour.” As the sexual tension between Diane and Hervé builds throughout Demonlover, the two decide to go on a dinner date. As Hervé tries to get to know Diane a cat and mouse exchange ensues before Hervé finally reveals that he has been aware of Diane’s identity and intentions for a while – rupturing Diane’s image of her colleague. Startled and exposed, Diane decides to come home with Hervé where he coerces her into having rough sex. Similarly, Hell Fire Club – hidden inside the depths of Demonlover – allows users to have their darkest sexual desires inflicted in real-time. Overexaggerated and exoticised, women are dressed as Western celebrities and tortured for sexual gratification to spice up the monotony of reproductive labour.
By the end of both films, the protagonists are left stranded in the unsettling depths of the forcefield between relational presence and absence. As Mating develops, Naomi and Edvin’s feelings towards each other move circularly like polar magnetic forces, rubbing together at moments only to propel each other apart. Their relationship becomes a waiting room, a purgatory where together they sit and watch as people walk in and out of each other’s lives. Also inside this waiting room is Diane, who by the end of the film is captured by her unsuspecting colleagues and trapped inside the Hell Fire Clubhouse as users – as young Naomi and Edvin – move in and out of her room to inflict torture.
Desensitised by the flows of neoliberal society, Assayas’ Demonlover and Mannheimer’s Mating reveal how we extort each other for a semblance of relational intimacy that is predicated on sexual coercion and abuse. These types of exchanges are not necessarily a product of social, romantic and sexual media as they are enacted both online and IRL – but what these two films show is how the Internet amplifies and makes clearer this forcefield between presence and absence. These relational poles are incongruously bridged, says Steyerl, by a desire and hope that is made to interrupt the drab temporality of contemporary society – and the more insecure this society gets, the more desirable and extortive hope gets. I agree with Antonia Pont, to subvert this relational structure we would have to adopt a form of radical politeness, an empathy that can only be found through self-work which aims to synchronise actions with intentions. And although reports reveal younger millennials as having the highest percentage of diagnosed mental health issues, they also reveal record highs in therapy attendance and a willingness to speak openly about their problems – a hope that softly flickers throughout Mating.
Steyerl, Hito. “Epistolary Affect and Romance Scams: Letter from an Unknown Woman.” October, vol.138, Fall 2011, pp.57-69.
Pont, Antonia. “Having Some Innuendo with You: Desire, Creativity and the Digital Interval.” The Lifted Brow, vol.44, December 2019, pp.9-16.
Demonlover will be playing on 21 February and Mating will be playing on 23 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.
Olivia Bennett is a Melbourne/Naarm-based writer, video-essayist and curator with bylines in Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her practice specialises in the socio-political effects and intersections between, art and film philosophy, posthumanism, ecology and digital media.