by Neal Block
Whether you’re of the mind that demonlover is critical of modern, ruthless, globalized capitalism, or that the film is an unintentional celebration of that ruthlessness, Sonic Youth has composed music for it so bafflingly ambiguous and abstract that it could support either opinion. Assayas, long known for the inclusion of cutting edge popular and underground music in his films, brought Sonic Youth fully into the creative fold for demonlover. The director suggested the group write pieces based on reactions to their initial reading of the script; then, during production, Assayas sent them dailies to watch. Sonic Youth’s music was constantly being played on set, so it could be inferred that the band was writing music based on acting influenced by their own recorded output, an idea as confoundingly avant-garde as anything frontman Thurston Moore could have thought up himself.
What resulted is soundtrack full of challenging (yet not difficult) interpretations of the various moods Assayas so carefully and observantly represents in his film: quiet, panic, resignation. There is very little here in the way of distinct melody or formulaic composition; unlike Assayas’s use of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” in Irma Vep, this music is meant to convey subtler emotions. Less invasive than signature SY guitar noise, and less overtly stylistic, the score Assayas divined from Moore and Co. is also rather uncompelling when taken in its own right: aside from a few inspired guitar movements and a couple of nice drones, the material is lacking in energy and focus when stripped from the film.
So, if an original soundtrack falls flat, who’s to blame? Do we point our finger at Assayas for not leaning on the band hard enough for them to snap out of their SYR autopilot mode and put some more effort into their compositions? Do we blame the musicians for passing off second-rate wankery as a score worthy of a film this complex? Or do we look to the film itself—confusing, jumbled, brilliant, perplexing, confrontational, violent—and think: Maybe it’s impossible to put music to something of this nature and have it affect a viewer on the same level as the images.
Certainly more difficult films have had more successful soundtracks, and Sonic Youth have even handed in better music for motion pictures in the past (SubUrbia). Olivier Assayas can’t be faulted for not inspiring his musicians—their music does complement his images. Snippets pop up in the film’s most contemplative moments, and indeed bring out the finer emotional gestures of character motivation and inner monologue. When the music is paired with city imagery, in particular a scene where Diane (Connie Nielsen) glides through traffic in near-silence, the result is revelatory. It’s the quieter moments in demonlover (the record and the movie) that best exemplify Assayas’s statements about the painful loneliness of our new modernity—increasingly isolated from one another, due to Internet or money or career, reality becomes a strictly subjective concept. Here, somehow, the tinkling guitars and gigantic vacuum-cleaner drones seem to both explain our predicament and offer warm-blanket comfort. The SY interludes are breaks from demonlover’s action, and they adequately, if not perfectly, add an emotional depth and personal connection to the plights of the film’s heroines.
But that doesn’t make the music any more interesting or provocative, just evocative. The most effective song on the soundtrack is “Dirge,” by a band called Death in Vegas, a pounding, repetitive, forceful head-bobber with a bass line that seems to propel it violently ahead. Its few moments are more intense than any of Sonic Youth’s contributions, which essentially straddle the line between practiced artiness and bored experimentation. A little bit more melody, a little more structure to the ambience—would it have been more interesting? That’s the question at the heart of this disc: if the music it contained were different—better, more focused—would its effect on the film be the same?
It’s as perplexing a puzzle as demonlover itself. Perhaps any music Assayas put behind his scenes could have mustered the same reactions and response as Sonic Youth’s electro-noodling. Perhaps, by a stroke of perfect luck, Assayas found the exact right musicians to score his masterpiece. Perhaps any music in this film would wither in comparison to the strength of the images. It’s a tough call, and there’s no answer. But after seeing the film three times, it’s hard to imagine watching Connie Nielsen drift sleepily through her self-engendered future-world without strains of “Melodikim” floating sleepily along with her.