Olivier Assayas's "Boarding Gate" arrives on these shores like a battered shipment of cheap goods. True, it's only sat moldering for ten months in its film canister since its Cannes premiere -- a relatively short period in these hazy days of distribution -- but it shows a distinct lack of freshness all the same. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing: there's a tantalizing whiff of mediocrity to "Boarding Gate," and it's consistently set off by high levels of self-awareness and undeniable craft. Assayas's later career has been a heady stew of class and crass, yet not even in his terrific, audience-baiting pseudo-technothriller "demonlover," with its corporate-girls-gone-wild for the smart set, did he flirt as heavily with exploitation as he does here.
Is Assayas truly putting forth the kind of loutish gamines-and-guns actioner his "Irma Vep" might have excoriated only a decade earlier? It's not exactly genre subversion (once in gear, it generally plays by its own silly rules), and it's not merely an exercise in style (before those rules are laid down, Assayas has a few narrative tricks up his sleeve), but rather a disconcertingly sincere stab at a particular kind of claptrap, a straight-to-video '80s thriller dolled up in a glossy art-house finish.
"Boarding Gate"'s virtues aren't in those places one would normally look: the plot is somewhat choppy and unsatisfying, the characters are at the whim of said plot, the dialogue is often ludicrous, and the high concepts (people as commodities; reluctant hitmen as symptoms of globalization; etc) are superfluous. There's not much being "said" in "Boarding Gate" that hasn't already been better said before, even by Assayas himself. Yet as with all of the French director's works, the truth is in the textures, and despite "Gate"'s goofiness, the film is often remarkably gorgeous: collaborating for the first time with director of photography Yorick Le Saux (who also shot last year's marvelously malodorous "Poison Friends"), Assayas proves that his cinematic vision doesn't lie in the hands of great DPs like Denis Lenoir and Eric Gautier.
Shot by Le Saux with the same trademark Assayas fluidity and shifting depths of field, "Boarding Gate" races from one rigorously framed, marvelously lit image to the next with dizzying abandon, and follows star Asia Argento with a desperate, demented infatuation. The impression left by "Boarding Gate" is of the tattooed nape of her neck, brushed ever so slightly by a French twist come undone; the shimmy of her hipless, underwear-clad body across a spacious, modernly appointed living room; the clack of her heels on decaying iron fire escapes. In other words, those negligible moments that make up a "negligible" film.
There's an almost delightful uselessness in recounting "Boarding Gate"'s plot, but for the sake of the uninitiated: former prostitute Sandra (Argento, serpentine in a form-fitting black zip-up) shows up unannounced at the office of businessman Miles (Michael Madsen, who's generally more impressive with less dialogue than he's given here), her former pimp and on-again, off-again lover, perhaps to ask for money for a nightclub venture, perhaps to reinitiate their torrid, sadomasochistic affair. Assayas shoots their first meeting with mysterious, slithery ominousness, laying a veil of import over even the most inane, generic conversation; and the even more elaborate follow-up to this encounter registers as some sort of extended, sleaze-bucket rejoinder to "Contempt"'s classic extended mid-movie breakdown, uncomfortably long and fixed with enough emotional back-and-forths for a full-length psychodrama.
There's a distinct sense of purposeful play-acting going on here, of actors embodying unrealistic types going through the motions (the lack of specificity in Miles's business dealings is the first amusing clue). However, rather than launch into a full-on genre critique, or revel in rigorous formal deconstruction (as in De Palma's exquisite "Femme Fatale"), Assayas uses the conventions as flimsy framework for his narrative escapades and oft trotted-out movie totems, taking Argento to Hong Kong on an assassin's wild goose chase. If nothing else, "Boarding Gate" serves as a gleaming testament to Assayas's cinema as one of fetishes (there are enough high heels, leather, bondage, and gorgeous Asian women in Assayas's past decade of films to identity his oeuvre as a particularly elaborate drag show). Though the film's most daring aspect might be its claims that viewers take it seriously, if you give Assayas a little leeway in blurring the lines between trash and art, a good time could be had by all.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]