“Its failures are what make it so watchable.”
The French love affair with pulpy thrillers and B-movie sleaze dates back at least to 1946, when Gallic critics first employed the term film noir to describe a sensibility peculiar to American films directed by some of Hollywood’s greatest (but then-unacknowledged) writer-directors. Of course, the French had their own Hitchcock in Henri-Georges Clouzot and a brilliant master of intrigue in Jean-Pierre Melville, but American sensibilities exerted the strongest influence on the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, who paid homage to the genre in their own way: Godard’s Alphaville, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, and Chabrol’s ironic policiers, to cite a few examples, not only harkened back to classics like Laura or The Big Sleep, but self-consciously toyed with the conventions governing such fatalistic and often titillating mysteries. Nowadays, many younger French filmmakers have inherited this fascination with the genre; recent entries include Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (a suspenseful twist on James Toback’s gritty 1978 drama, Fingers), Cedric Kahn’s white-knuckle ride Red Lights, and Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One, based on a best-selling crime novel by Harlan Coben.
Slyly invoking this tradition, Boarding Gate is a confounding thriller from writer-director Olivier Assayas, who’s best known outside France for Irma Vep (1996), a partially improvised satire of the film biz starring Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, who later married the director. Like his New Wave forerunners, Assayas is a critic-filmmaker who put in a stint as an editor of the influential Cahiers du Cinéma before turning his attention to making feature films. In the 1990s, Assayas specialized in smart, angsty dramas like Cold Water and Late August, Early September, but he also found time to make HHH, a documentary tribute to Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. Perhaps because of his personal relationship to East Asian culture (Yi Yi director Edward Yang was a close friend, and Assayas edited a groundbreaking survey of Hong Kong cinema for Cahiers in the mid ’80s), he has in recent years developed a mode of filmmaking that, in terms of its themes and stylistic methodology, reflects the heady new realities of globalism. His concerns with the psychosexual universe of modern finance, in particular, permeated his 2002 cybercorporate thriller Demonlover, a film that frustrated some, exhilarated others, and should be viewed as a genetic precursor to his latest effort.
Conceived as a low-budget, quick-shoot B movie, Boarding Gate opens with weary, Paris-based international financier Miles (Michael Madsen) exiting a shooting range, telling his partner Andrew (Alex Descas) he’s decided to sell his shares in the company to a Singaporean outfit and quit the business. Later, in the warren of glass-walled office suites where he conducts his affairs, Miles is visited by Sandra (Asia Argento), a former paramour who, we soon learn, performed sexual favors for Miles’ clients at his behest, with the intent of gaining inside information that would be of value to him. “It turned you on to pay me for that,” she purrs, half accusingly, before huskily begging him to say the word “slave.” As their sordid history of kink and S&M role-playing comes to light in this scene, Assayas’ camera pivots and glides around the couple in their adulterously low-key tête-à-tête. Miles wants Sandra back – no one else turns him on. Sandra’s motivations are more opaque, but she agrees to call on Miles, now divorced from his wife, at his old flat.
All of this would be plenty of character-establishing material for a slow-burning noir based on the actual news brief that Assayas claims inspired his storyline: the 2005 murder of French investment banker Edouard Stern, the “Mozart of finance,” who was found garbed in a full-body latex suit, apparently the gunshot victim of a dominatrix he had cavorted with for many years. And this scenario certainly echoes the chilling coda of Demonlover, in which latex-clad corporate vixen Connie Nielsen is trapped in an interactive torture dungeon known to private Web subscribers as the Hellfire Club, gawked at by an underage boy in his suburban bedroom. But Assayas, less concerned here with the abstract world of money and the circulation of images as commodities, injects a tawdrier, more personal element of international intrigue that refocuses the basic framework (and geography) of his love-gone-wrong tale.
If the first half of Boarding Gate wallows in a noirish atmosphere of seedy sexual frisson and girl-with-a-gun criminal antics worthy of James M. Cain – an ill-advised heroin-smuggling scheme lands Sandra in hot water with her model-handsome Chinese boss, Lester (Carl Ng), with whom she’s also having an affair, unbeknownst to his import-export partner and wife, Sue (Kelly Lin) – the second half hews closer to the mode of contemporary action thrillers. On the run from an act of violence spawned in her final encounter with Miles, Sandra assumes a new identity with the help of Lester and Sue, only to find herself in even greater danger when she lands in the alien bustle of Hong Kong with a hastily scrawled contact name, no understanding of the local dialect, and a desperate need to believe in the goodwill of strangers. As the layers of betrayal begin to uncoil, Sandra uses her wiles to escape, and then plots revenge.
Assayas is not well known to English-language audiences beyond the fest circuit, and Boarding Gate is not likely to change that situation much, in spite of its titillating genre reworkings and the spectacle of tattooed femme fatale Argento stalking about in black panties and stilettos, or bringing the ursine, über-masculine Madsen to heel with a throat-asphyxiating belt. For one thing, the film is bizarrely stilted, and uneven. The Scarlet Diva’s two key scenes with Madsen (Reservoir Dogs’ sadistic Mr. Blonde) are maundering and overlong; the natural volatility of these two instinctual actors is undermined by conversational longueurs (Madsen twice utters the line “If I had bought you that club in Beijing, I’d have never seen you again”) and a semi-improvised cat-and-mouse dynamic that feels under-rehearsed. On the other hand, those who dismissed the film at Cannes last year as a “limp, sleazy inanity,” as one critic put it, were maligning Assayas’ estimable intelligence and failing to scrutinize Gate’s intriguing engagement with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call global culture.
First, there is the hegemonic element of language. As with Demonlover, Assayas (right) immerses us in a world of transnational commerce where English is the common tongue, deliberately casting actors who (with the exception of Madsen) speak it only as a second language. The incomparably louche Argento, daughter of Italian splatmeister Dario Argento, is a multilingual star in Europe and beyond, having acted in Italian, French, and American productions, most recently in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales and Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Carl Ng and Kelly Lin are luminaries of Hong Kong cinema, with strong ties to Britain and the U.S., respectively, where they each attended school. Only Madsen, whose Robert Mitchum-style machismo echoes the gruff persona and fatalism of so many classic noir antiheroes, is entirely at ease in the world market’s mother tongue. In that sense, and because of his quiet air of intermingled menace and entitlement, Miles is most emblematic of the ruthless logic of American-style capitalism. But he is also, as Sandra pointedly reminds him, “a cliché of a bygone era,” about to be swallowed whole by an East Asian concern. Enter the dragon, indeed.
Second, the film clearly extends the concerns of Demonlover, which is set in the arid, polyglot boardrooms of a multinational corporation attempting a hostile takeover of a Tokyo-based animé-porn outfit. Concentrating more on story and character, Assayas dispenses with the fetish of Internet technologies as a structuring principle for Gate. But he does not abandon his idée fixe: the dynamic of dominance and submission between Diane and Hervé, Demonlover‘s co-nemeses, is transposed to Miles and Sandra, each jockeying for position in relation to the other. As Assayas himself has said, the work relationship in business environments is deeply connected to sexuality, to the economy, and to the objects or images they traffic in. Today, we live in a virtual age. And images, whether of cinema or pornography or advertising or MTV, mask the exploitative and unequal human relations that condition their existence as commodities. Assayas’ interest in sadomasochistic themes across two films does not reflect a personal obsession, per se, like the breast-centric films of erotomaniac Russ Meyer; it is an attempt to explore and reflect on an all-encompassing economic reality within the medium of visual storytelling art, which is itself impacted by that system of domination.
Finally, going even as far back as Les Destinées Sentimentales, Assayas’ 2000 adaptation of a turn-of-the-century novel by Jacques Chardonne, he has been fascinated with the workings of commercial industry. Sequences in that film, a romantic period piece about the changing fortunes of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), heir to a porcelain empire, were devoted to the factory floor, the production line where the artisanal objects on which the family dynasty has been built are manufactured. In Demonlover, he trains a curious eye on the inner workings of a manga production house, the 21st-century equivalent of Les Destinées’ porcelain-carving facility. And in Boarding Gate, Assayas inserts shots of shipping yards and storage facilities, the pivotal sites linking Eastern and Western business investments, as well as Lester, Sue, Miles, and Andrew. Sandra is the renegade in this system, maneuvering from the sleek corporate office to the drab loading dock where she operates, in each environment, as an agent of illegal trade. It is no accident that Assayas’ Paris is limited to these two unglamorous locales: the inner sanctum of power (Miles’ well-appointed flat is merely a private extension of office privilege) and the outer metropolitan precincts where that power is realized.
Assayas’ previous feature was Clean (2004), a small-scale drama about a heroin-addicted rock musician (Maggie Cheung) attempting to start her life over again in Paris – and reconnect with her young son – after her husband’s fatal overdose in a Canadian motel. That film’s intimacy and piercing emotional detail have been neatly inverted in Boarding Gate, the story of a woman attempting to flee her life in Paris, only to find that dirty dealings, double crosses, and squalid affairs of the heart have trailed her all the way to Hong Kong. Dirty would have been a fine alternate title for this movie. Not to mention a tip of the hat to Sonic Youth, one of Assayas’ biggest musical inspirations, whose 1992 album bears that name. The long-running No Wave pioneers scored Demonlover, and in 2006 Assayas filmed members of the group performing at an avant-garde music festival for his documentary Noise. Kim Gordon, the band’s bassist/singer, even has a role in Boarding Gate as a kind of mob-world fixer, hilariously barking orders at her underlings in flawless Cantonese. Sonic Youth has always explored the tension between structure (melody) and improvisation (squalls of white noise), so it is no wonder that Assayas has found in their music an analogue to his experiments in cinema.
And an experiment is precisely how Boarding Gate should be viewed. The film was shot on a modest budget (2 million Euros) in 28 days, partially as a response to the director’s inability to secure funding for a more ambitious project. As such, it succeeds on some levels, particularly when viewed in the context of the director’s body of work, and fails to engage at others, especially in terms of how Assayas strains narrative and frustrates our desire for sustained tension in the Paris segments. (Premiere’s Glenn Kenny compared the talky Madsen-Argento standoffs to the Michel Piccoli–Brigitte Bardot contretemps at the heart of Godard’s Contempt, but that is too generous by half.) Nevertheless, these failures are what make it so watchable, so unusually provisional and unhinged. With the possible exception of Michael Winterbottom, no one of Assayas’ stature is making such brash, quick-and-dirty attempts to remake and remodel well-worn codes of studio filmmaking for international audiences.