Boarding Gate (2007): Assayas Riveting Midnight Movie

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere, Out of Competition)–French director Olivier Assayas’ new work, “Boarding Gate,” playing as a Midnight program out of competition in the official selection, is riveting to watch.

Sculpted in a free and innovative matter that uses the camera in a particular interesting and fascinating way to create a stylistic fluency, Assayas works in a deliberately lower-grade subject form that some critics will dismiss as (Euro) trash.

At the 1996 Cannes Festival, Assayas unveiled “Irma Vep,” his beautiful, electric portrait of filmmaking and relationships that was arguably the first artistically significant work by a significant Western filmmaker to acknowledge the intensity and verve of Asian cinema, preceding even those contributions of the Wachowski Brothers and Tarantino.

Presented in competition at Cannes in 2002, “Demonlover,” deepened his formal and technical connection to Asian cinema. A former critic with the seminal French film journal Cahiers du cinema, Assayas marks an important intellectual tradition with the New Wave directors Truffaut, Godard and Rivette.

Assayas has three interesting periods: the early French works about young people and relationships, summarized by the tender, erotic and beautifully shaded autobiographical “Cold Water”; the middle period of adult-themed personal reflections and adaptations signalled by Les destinees sentimentales”; and now the Asian influenced political, sexual and corporate studies of “Irma Vep,” “Demonlover,” and “Clean.”

In his new film, Assayas animates the redemption of sleaze, sharply etching the dark poetry of the contemporary global marketplace that yields a perversely revealing multilingual setting of duplicitously twisted internecine corporate politics, sexual maneuvering and cultural dislocation that colors his B-thriller with a grubby tension, style, unpredictable plotting and memorably drawn characters.

“Boarding Gate” has a tantalizing two-part structure, unfolding between Paris and Hong Kong. Asia Argento dominates the film as Sandra, a sexually lethal provocateur who turns up at the Paris offices of her former lover, Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen), to broker a new deal with some friends who run an upscale import furniture business.

Suffering bad losses from currency deals and oil machinery transaction that exposed his financial holdings, Miles is also reeling fromthe collapse of his marriage. Her reappearance stings Miles, the sight of her instantly conjuring up their previously explicit sexual transactions.

It also reveals the one-upmanship of their relationship and how Miles deployed her to sexually service his clients in an effort to extract important inside information. Sandra is a thrill seeker and rule breaker who uses her position inside the import company to broker drug deals. She uses her sexuality to wield special influence, sleeping with Lester (Carl Ng), the owner of the import company with his wife, Sue (Kelly Lin).

Sandra is first viewed in a reverse angle shot of her alluring neck that is tattooed with the number 23. (In Rome, the number means good luck, Argento said at the press conference). Shes a brilliant survivalist. Assays has always been exceptional with actors, and he does impressive work with Madsen. The actor is softer and less threatening than usual, and Assayas denies the actors trademark sleek machismo and bleak efficiency to project a quiet and vulnerable defeat.

The shocking conclusion to their relationship ruptures the movies first part, setting up the vivid, tense and dream-like second half. The action is suddenly shuttled to Hong Kong, and Sandra is enlisted on a dangerous and ill-defined mission under the control of Lester and his wife. The speed and temp is suddenly altered, the portrait of Hong Kong one of fractured perspectives and spatial incoherence.

Paris’ darker textures have been replaced by a luminous and intoxicating blue light that suggests an outlaw culture where everything is permitted and nothing denied. Sandra is the exile, though her survivalist instincts serve her with distinction. Assayass position of the outsider is marked by that of Sandras. Assayas makes the daring analogy that her playful, aggressive and uninhibited sexual liberation is a telling and effective means of thwarting off pain and violation.

From Virginie Ledoyen, Maggie Cheung to Connie Nielsen, the women of Assayas films are shaded and complex women whose thrust for autonomy has always meant their being alone. Argento is a great presence, her body voluptuous and tough; she has a speed and alertness that seems directly wired to her conscious, giving her the instincts and imitative that ensures her survival. The movies other women, Kelly Lin (the star of several Johnnie To movies) and Kim Gordon (speaking Cantonese), are no less formidable. Their scenes off of Argento provide a propulsive kick.

The yarn’s second half marks Assayass most stripped down and visceral filmmaking. The first half is marked by ambiguity and misdirection, the portrait of Sandra a lovely and fascinating meditation on her body. Working for the first time with the excellent French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, Assayas works in disparate movements, the action jumping from the sleek, high powered French corporate offices to suburban Paris warehouses to the movies bravura closing sequences in the vertical, crowded spaces of Hong Kong.

“Boarding Gate” is a movie of sharp edges and disruptive tension that remains open to various possibilities and multiple scenarios. The tone is percussive and dreamy, switching almost imperceptibly from day to night and encompassing revelation and nightmare. Assayas has always been a gracefully observational, and his penetrating, alert feel for the interlocking rhythms of cities has yielded new and unexpected depths to his work. Its alive, creative and intelligent filmmaking that makes no apologizes or regrets for the origins of the material. Best of all, the ambiguous closing shot suggests a character who remains to fight another day, another time.


Sandra (Asia Argento)
Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen)
Lester Wang (Carl Ng)
Sue (Kelly Lin)