The films of Olivier Assayas take on a range of subjects that explore the seamier reaches of the global economy: corporate espionage, drug smuggling, the porn industry, and torture websites. Demonlover is noteworthy for tracing the descent of its protagonist from the corporate stratosphere – the film opens in the first class section of a flight from East Asia to Paris, where passengers rise up from the beds to an opulent breakfast – to the grim inferno of a secluded compound in what looks like the Mexican desert, where, clad in black leather, she is tied to bed, waiting to be tortured on the orders of a nerdy high school student in a US suburb. Boarding Gate (2007) similarly unfolds in the nether regions of global capitalism where the illicit and the official economies intersect, once it gets going, that is. Unfortunately, Boarding Gate is a film that too often talks when it needs action, and shows action when it needs dialogue. The final effect is a curious misfire. At the end of the film, when the protagonist, played by Asia Argento, receives a new identity on distant continent, my only thought was, this would be the beginning of a very fascinating story.
Unlike Demonlover, which draws the viewer in even though its protagonist in the initial scenes cold-bloodedly arranges the kidnapping of a colleague and then moves on to negotiate a deal with a porn company, the entire first half of Boarding Gate comes across largely as exposition. The scenes, in which Sandra (Asia Argento) confronts her ex-lover, a businessman (Michael Madsen) involved in unsavory ventures, and goes over the sleazy things he paid her to do hold the viewer at a distance. One particularly traumatic episode revolves around a drugged drink and Polaroids. But we are held at a distance from these reminiscences – the fact that the characters talk at length about their previous experiences drains them of their provocative content, while the viewer remains unsure about what the significance of their relationship might be in the present. I don’t think that these scenes can be defended along Brechtian lines of alienating the viewer by holding the action at a critical remove – they are rather too functional in light of how abruptly their relationship gets resolved. Nor does their communication convey a powerful undercurrent of erotic desire in the manner of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, when the character played by Bibi Andersson recounts a sexual encounter on a beach.
Both Argento and Madsen are nevertheless quite good in these scenes. Argento shifts deftly between rage, sympathy, and longing, and makes a strong impact in spite of the relative weakness of the material. On the other hand, Madsen’s talent for appearing befuddled and threatening at the same is, alas, wasted. The second half of the film is when the border-crossing begins in earnest, as Sandra travels from London to Madrid and then to Hong Kong. She narrowly, or not so narrowly, avoids getting killed by intermediaries who are entangled with her lover in mysterious ways. A blonde woman in the clothing business shows up, ostensibly to save her. The scenes in Hong Kong are frenetic and fast-paced in contrast to the languor of the earlier scenes in London. Pursued by two assassins, Sandra opens a door with her gun raised and finds herself in the middle of a vast, crowded restaurant.
This discrepancy in the pacing made me consider that Boarding Gate would have been more effective were it set entirely in China, and if the scenes in London were shown as flashbacks. A film that is so focused on the crossing of borders, not only national and economic ones but also moral and psychic barriers, calls out for a non-linear, non-chronological form. Indeed, the greatest flaw of Boarding Gate, in my opinion, is that it unfolds in a linear fashion. I think it would be far more effective as a fragmented film, jumping between moments in time and location, or even as a film which explicitly sets out to answer the question, what in the world are you doing here?, in which case, it would begin with Sandra in China, and then proceed to unravel that mystery. The promise, and the conceptual weakness of the film, is that its truncated ending turns China into a sort of gigantic, highly populated Alaska, a land on the frontier of legality and consciousness, when in fact it is much more than a projection of Western capital and Western restlessness. How one might begin anew in a country with an ancient civilization and an ultramodern revolution or two is the real fish that calls out for frying.
For an insightful and divergent perspective on the film, one with more detailed analysis and a different appraisal of its ideological undercurrents, see Steven Shaviro’s blog.