I wasn't sure what to make of Olivier Assayas' cryptic thriller BOARDING GATE (***) while I was watching it, and a few days later, I am still not sure what to think about it. I liked it, though, so I guess that's all that matters in the end. This is the first film I have seen from Assayas, who wrote and directed, and it won't be the last; I'm very intrigued by Assayas' aesthetic, which is in the key of minor Michael Mann. BOARDING GATE is the sort of genre film that doesn't make ripples in the theaters, but that people end up discovering on DVD or pay cable. It's a naughty little film, with some kinky sex and bloody gun-play, all steeped in the traditions of the femme fatale and international crime noir. Not as interested in coherent plot developments or definitive answers, BOARDING GATE operates in an almost dream-like state which heightens the actions of its sleazy characters. But what makes the film worth watching has more to do with what it doesn't do, then what it does do.
Asia Argento (XXX, MARIE ANTOINETTE) is Sandra, an ex-call girl with a history of drug problems and a taste for S&M. She's working a legit job in Paris for some sort of international importer/exporter, while also conducting shady drug deals on the side. Her old lover, Miles (Michael Madsen), also happens to be her ex-pimp; the two have a very, very sordid past. She meets up with Miles again and it's clear that there is still some heat between the two of them. What Miles doesn't know is that Sandra is also carrying on an affair with her boss, the quietly mysterious Lester (Carl Ng), who runs his company with his wife Sue (Kelly Lin), who may be up to more than she lets on. Someone gets murdered (not telling who it is or who the killer is) and Sandra flees to Beijing, where she has dreams of opening a night club. I may be missing something but that might be due to the way certain events in this film are explained. As the film nears its conclusion, BOARDING GATE builds to an almost certainly grim finale that given what actually transpires, will be a surprise for most viewers.
Assayas is most interested in style, tone, ambiguous characters, and the chance to photograph his sexy leading lady in black lace panties while she brandishes a pistol. The fun that Assayas has with the ingredients of crime noir is presented right from the beginning. Argento, not the world's most amazing actress, has a clear-cut confidence in front of a camera that is cold, hard, and real. Her dialogue, much of which is delivered in a gravelly whisper, is heavy with symbolism. She pouts her lips, tilts her head, and genuinely looks like she'd be up for just about anything. She's a true femme fatale that De Palma or Hitchcock would love. Madsen, who never met a sleaze-ball character he couldn't ace in his sleep, is perfectly cast as Miles, a guy who'll never be able to keep his shit straight. One scene between the two of them, involving oral sex and a leather belt, is pervertedly hysterical while also being rather titillating. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux bathes the film in hot, bright light that illuminates interiors with a slick, almost ghostly glow. And because the film operates in such a tentative mind-set with the characters making frantic decisions, there is a purposefully messy quality to the narrative that is both liberating and frustrating to the viewer.
There were times when I wished I better understood what was going on during BOARDING GATE, yet, I can't honestly say I was ever truly confused or annoyed by Assayas' deliberately opaque style. The film is more about what happens in between the big moments dictated by the necessity of plot, and less about the more obvious instances of action or spectacle. But the film's final moments, which I totally loved, really sealed the deal for me. The ending of BOARDING GATE might anger some viewers who are looking for a more overtly satisfying emotional conclusion to the story. It was here when I got the feeling that Assayas was channeling Michael Mann, or trying to anyways. BOARDING GATE isn't as strong overall as anything that Mann has ever created, but Assayas deserves points for trying. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think I am. This is a fun, dangerous, sexy thriller that's well worth checking out.