Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Miles (Michael Madsen) is a middle-aged tycoon who owes large sums of money to some disreputable Chinese loan sharks. He announces to his partner Andrew (Alex Descas) that he’s going to sell his share in their business to them. Shortly thereafter, his ex-girlfriend Sandra (Asia Argento) reenters into his life. She had been pimped out to Miles’ business acquaintances and indulged in all the excesses of the high life, leaving her a pale, wraithlike, but still fire-eyed survivor. Entering his office one day, the pair swiftly click back into the taunting, provocative, addled rhythms of relating—she recalling his drugged-up impotence, he proposing that she really loved being his slave-for-hire—that tell the whole gruesome story of their affair. Now Sandra works for a furniture importing firm in France, run by Lester (Carl Ng) and Sue Wang (Kelly Lin), married business partners she met through Miles.
Sandra and her friend and coworker Lisa (Joana Preiss) have their own importing business, with a cocaine shipment coming through in the furniture Sandra plans to sell to finance her final escape from France. She wants to open a nightclub in Beijing, a project Miles refused to finance because he knew she’d never come back to him. But the drug deal turns sour, and Sandra only escapes thanks to the intervention of Lester. She’s having an affair with Lester, which he seems to be obscuring from Sue. Sandra is invited to Miles’ sterile villa, and their woozy relationship seems primed to pick up again, leading to such moments as her tying her belt around his neck and jerking him off, and he locking in her and promising to ravish her. Then, when he’s on his knees, handcuffed and giggling, she pulls out a gun and empties the clip into his back.
Up to this point, and despite the genre suspense of Sandra and Lester’s escape from the blown drug deal, Boarding Gate seems closer in sensibility to the likes of The Night Porter or Last Tango in Paris—an alienation-coated study of a cruelly sensual, destructive relationship, with two epic sequences in which Sandra and Miles converse, flirt, combust, and finally annihilate. Abruptly, the film changes tack with a dancer’s agility, becoming a Hitchcockian chase saga, as Sandra flees her act and we discover the reasons behind it. Into that Orphic realm—that place that Hitchcock defined as the essence of his style of thriller, the place beneath everyday life which must be ventured into to have a hope of returning to life.
Boarding Gate is, in some ways, a pure, reductive B-movie, with Argento as its manga-gorgeous muse (Sandra herself had created a sci-fi heroine for a website with whom Miles identifies her), and depending on Argento’s ever-ready love of stripping off and stripping down to shift from wilted orchid to Venus Flytrap in a blink. Yet it’s also deeply eccentric. Although the plot is more deftly constructed than first glance might suggest, the film never cares particularly about explaining it to us, and the final 20 minutes constantly pervert the expected. Sandra is a morally null heroine who acts through pure, outraged nerve whom we root for mainly because of her nihilistic determination to survive. Sandra’s killing Miles seems an act of amour fou, but actually is motivated by money: she’s been promised to be paid for knocking him off by Lester and Sue, who in turn, have been employed by a shadowy international network, and finally it leads back to Andrew, eager to eliminate his flaky partner. Sandra soon plunges down the rabbit hole. When she reaches Hong Kong, where she has been promised safe haven by Lester, she finds that her friend and confidante Lisa has been murdered by jittery local thugs, and that she, too, seems set for a shallow grave.
The film cunningly constructs a likeness of exploitation, and questions simple dividing lines between the types of abuse people can dole out to each other. Though Miles (like Madsen’s Budd in Tarantino’s Kill Bill) is filled with regret and shame for his evil acts, he also cannot resist resuming them, because they’re all that keeps him alive. He’s a clinically cynical vision of a modern man—a divorced father, consuming aplenty, driven by a nameless lust that only finds it satiety in Sandra, not by being with her but in possessing her. Sandra mocks him with his failed purchase of a Russian petrochemical plant and ebbing clout as a businessman, analogous to his failing grip on her. Her final murder of him is a claim of financial, sexual, and emotional independence, revealing a blunt desire to escape Miles’ intolerable idea of existence.
Director Olivier Assayas, who established himself with Irma Vep (1995), a tribute to a cinematic ur-text (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampyres, 1916), specialises in films about a globalised world with an increasingly fragmented sense of humanity filtered through a hazy, kaleidoscopic visual sensibility that captures an era numbed by technological glaze and the comedown blues after a night of cocktails, Ecstasy, and kinky sex. Boarding Gate forms a loose trilogy with Demonlover (2002) and Clean (2004) as a globe-trotting study of terminal emotional exhaustion, the illimitable capacity for depravity, and the simplicity of decency. Assayas maintains a tenuous space between being a facile, faux moralist, video-clip director like David Fincher and an equally boring, plain moralist through his bare enjoyment of the spectacles of sex and excess and shimmering, surreal surfaces of modernity beneath which lies a grim Hades.
Eventually, astute critics will make a broad study of the modern world through the recurring images and moods in films like Assayas’, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Matthias X. Oberg’s Stratosphere Girl, Zhang Ke Jia’s The World, and the last chapter of Hou-hsiao Hsien’s Three Times . These films are defined by the brutal edifices and labyrinthine guts of great Asian metropolises and the great communality of modern culture, but also its increasing atomization. Their complex quotations and mockeries of genres and pop canards, their sense of vast paranoia that infuses the urban and suburban everyday form the core of a new breed of modern, internationalist filmmaking, broad in compass, sons and daughters of Antonioni and Batman. Assayas’ poor ear for English dialogue often results in scenes that hit their beats too heavily, but that’s pretty well beside the point.
Indeed, Assayas winks at the corny tropes of genre dialogue, especially in Argento’s climactic encounter with a plot-explaining international woman of mystery (played, with a kind of robotic realism, by alt-culture goddess Kim Gordon) who plays gatekeeper to Sandra’s escape. Assayas conscientiously turns the trappings of the international jetsetter life into a glittering mockery. As far as I’m concerned, 2008 is the year of Asia Argento: between this film, Une Vieille Maîtresse, and her father’s The Mother of Tears, she’s taken a hammer to every nicety expected of an actress today. She—not the woefully overexposed Angelina Jolie—is both the sex symbol and symbol smasher of the age. And if Madsen gets any cooler, by the time he hits 60, he’s going to single-handedly reverse global warming. Ng has a lean, Bogartian intensity, and it’s almost a disappointment that he doesn’t get to come out swinging as a badass.
Assayas stages his scenes with an offhand brilliance, building to a breathless gunfight and chase through Honk Kong’s streets and a confrontation with the snide Sue in a karaoke parlour. This comes across as a particularly hellish devastation of the portrait of karaoke parlour as portal of international brotherhood and idealism in Lost In Translation. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux paints in stupefyingly beautiful widescreen frames images of office banality, sexual explosiveness, and exotic locales, all with the same glaze of slithery, icy clarity.
Assayas’ genre bending is a front to explore the nature of ardour. Sandra is no femme fatale, in that she is motivated not by a desire to destroy, but by her spurned capacity for love. The film’s finale is all the more taut for being almost a throwaway, as Sandra, believing Lester has betrayed and abandoned her, prepares to stab him and steal away with the bounty Andrew has paid him. The audience knows that Lester has not betrayed her and has left the rapacious, untrustworthy Sue, so experiences anxiety that she will kill the man who loves her, having been sucked in so far by this inhuman life. But she finally walks away, disappearing into the great contemporary haze, having, one hopes, recognised that she can’t escape her mistakes by annihilating those who hurt her. The simplicity of decency indeed.