2007Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Asia Argento, Kelly Lin, Michael Madsen
livier Assayas is one of the most dedicated disciples of a fading approach to filmmaking. Years ago, it was de rigeur for European auteurs to build their movies around actresses of unusual beauty, and in the cases of Rossellini and Godard, marry them. Weddings aside, these days this tradition is most prominent in Chinese-language cinema, through stars like Hong Kong’s Faye Wong and Carina Lau, mainlanders like Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, and the ace, Assayas’ ex-wife Maggie Cheung. You can see the attraction of this method to Assayas, a lover of popular film in general and Hong Kong film in particular who has long tailored his work to fit his female leads. There might be eight actresses unassumingly cool enough to play Cheung’s role in the great Irma Vep, and two dozen skilled enough to play her role in Clean, but no one else could have performed both parts so perfectly. Or else take the highly intriguing trainwreck demonlover, in which Assayas chips away at Connie Nielsen’s icy surface to reveal a woman as tired and scornful as Manet’s Olympia.
There’s no need to chip away at Asia Argento—her swagger and chronic jetlag have been on display at least since her first feature as a writer-director, the mildly intriguing Scarlet Diva, a semi-autobiographical (hah!) story of a drugged-out, masochistic model-actress. Argento’s lack of inhibition about nudity or non-missionary sex, and lack of better judgment in general, was occasionally jaw-dropping enough to allow you to ignore her missteps as a filmmaker. Yet better directors than her have had trouble harnessing her talents: she was particularly unsuited to playing a Gus Van Blank in Last Days. While she’s done better staring through Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette and furthering her family’s zombie-flick heritage in Land of the Dead, she never managed to unite her intellectual side with her trashy side, her Simon with her Garfunkel.
Until now. You should hope against hope that Boarding Gate, one of three Argento vehicles that made her the talk of this year’s Cannes, gets an uncut U.S. release as wide as Clean’s. Assayas is so attuned to Argento that the movie resembles Scarlet Diva down to its flaws (trying to transform them into virtues), like the camerawork—filled with blurred, violent pans, albeit on film instead of video—and the disjointed plot. Shady investor Miles (Michael Madsen) is confronted in Paris by his ex-lover Sandra (Argento). She’s having an affair with her boss Lester (Carl Ng), and the drug-running she’s casually involved with might be her least hazardous after-hours activity. The shit soon hits the fan and she decamps to Hong Kong, where the movie turns into a more conventional thriller.
Boarding Gate’s Paris consists of docks and factories and offices that could be in any big city (most of these French scenes were actually shot in Hong Kong). Even the luxury apartments and clubs are blandly indistinct. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is exuberant, full of street life and karaoke and a cameoing Kim Gordon. Chinese performers get major roles: Ng looks every part the leading man, while Kelly Lin is excellent in a generic role.
In two long sequences, Madsen and Argento toy with the generic, then obliterate it. In the first, Sandra turns up at Miles’ office after an absence of several months. She looks zonked-out, half-smiling and rolling her head around, but she stays a step of him, baiting and teasing him. In a wet-dream moment that will likely cause those uncomfortable with overt female sexuality to stop taking the movie seriously, while Miles is explaining himself and desperately trying to work out whether she wants him back or wants to castrate him, Sandra pulls up her dress and strokes her crotch. It’s a titillating moment, and it’s also an artful one: Argento makes the movement look completely casual, which is exactly the image Sandra wants to project.
The second extended Madsen-Argento sequence is far more dangerous. This time Miles is ready to fight back, and we get tears and some not-quite-sex scenes amidst gruelling emotional and physical violence. Madsen, domineering yet pathetic, is brilliant here, while Argento is simply astonishing. Supplementing her operatic emotions with small gestures and glances, she’s as carnal and volatile as peak Brando, yet her persona is unmistakably feminine. She breaks, but in no time she puts herself back together again. Boarding Gate shows us what women have gained from modernity, and what the West has lost to it. You’re dreaming if you think the solution is escaping to Asia. But it’s easy to see the appeal of that dream.
Boarding Gate is currently touring film festivals.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-10-17