Italian director Marco Ferreri named one of his films “The Future Is Female.” For France's Olivier Assayas, that's a given.
“Boarding Gate” marks an unofficial follow-up to Assayas' 2002 cyberpunk opus “Demonlover.” In some respects — particularly, its fascination with Asia — it also recalls his 1996 “Irma Vep.” In all three films, networks of desire and money form around powerful women. In “Irma Vep,” which starred Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung as herself, the central character was likable, even relatively innocent. The divas of “Demonlover” and “Boarding Gate” bounce between being victims and dominatrixes.
For Assayas, women – whether they call the shots, suffer sexually, or both – embody both the allure and danger of capitalism.
For Olivier Assayas, women embody capitalism's allure and danger
Sandra (Asia Argento), a former prostitute, used to work on behalf of her lover Miles (Michael Madsen). Miles used her sexual services on his clients, attempting to pry secrets out of them in the bedroom. However, it didn't work so well, and he's now riddled with debt. A prominent website describes him as a has-been.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Opens Mar. 21
When the film begins, Sandra is working for a company that imports furniture, but she gets involved in a drug deal that goes bad. After killing Miles, she flees to Hong Kong, but betrayal lurks around every corner.
Assayas' interests and style are quite eclectic. As a critic for Cahiers du Cinema in the early '80s, he defended the then-disreputable horror films of David Cronenberg (a major influence on “Demonlover”), John Carpenter, and Joe Dante. In 1984, he edited a special issue of the magazine devoted to Hong Kong cinema. He was one of the first Western critics to recognize the importance of Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang.
Assayas' best work synthesizes art-house and pulp influences, bringing together the French fondness for talk-fests with the dynamic mannerism of Johnnie To and Michael Mann. “Irma Vep” makes references to almost every conceivable kind of film — silent cinema, Hong Kong action movies, the French New Wave, agitprop documentaries, and the non-narrative avant-garde.
“Boarding Gate” is certainly less ambitious than “Demonlover,” yet in some respects it improves on its predecessor by covering less ground. It indulges in sex and violence without moralizing about the evils of Internet porn. Yet its narrative feels half-hearted, even silly, and many of its performances don't gel. Only Argento really seems to inhabit her part; Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, barking out orders to her henchmen in Cantonese, is borderline laughable.
In “Demonlover,” Assayas addressed a similar narrative problem by creating a plot deliberately difficult to follow – both the characters and viewers fell down a rabbit hole. “Boarding Gate” doesn't go to such extremes; it simply feels needlessly convoluted with no clear point.
Assayas' use of music has always been impressive; many people remember “Irma Vep” containing far more than the handful of songs played within it. It's no surprise that he wrote a book on Kenneth Anger, whose short “Scorpio Rising” paved the way for music videos. The best moments of “Boarding Gate” feature music and approach abstraction. A karaoke scene, set in Hong Kong, is full of narrative intrigue, but the roving camera seems to have an agenda of its own.
When its characters aren't shooting each other, “Boarding Gate” is capable of great beauty, especially in the final scene. Assayas and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux create a world that's always slightly blurred. In her two-shots with Miles, Sandra is usually the only one of the two who remains in focus. There's something subtly dreamlike about the film's images, if not its action.
In fact, the images are far more attractive than the characters — certainly more sympathetic. As in “Demonlover,” Assayas is deliberately dabbling in a post-humanist cinema. It's no accident that the city of Hong Kong has almost as much presence as his star. Without any characters with whom one can easily identify, we're left to marvel at the filmmaking itself. It's impressive, but Assayas strands his characters in a world so devoid of emotion that it's difficult to care about their fate.
The mixture of kinky sex and capital was done better in Donald Cammell's “Wild Side” and Abel Ferrara's “New Rose Hotel,” which also starred Argento. One also has to wonder whether it bears any resemblance to the reality of the business world; as depicted by Assayas, all bankers are ready to play S&M games at the drop of a whip. “Boarding Gate” is mired in secondhand, vaguely political notions about globalization and unwilling to really let itself go to extremes.