Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: BOARDING GATE (2008)

(France - 2007; US release 2008)

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Cast: Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Kelly Lin, Carl Ng, Kim Gordon, Alex Descas, Joana Preiss, Raymond Tsang, Boss Mok. (R, 106 mins)

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas' sleek and glossy thriller BOARDING GATE was met with shrugs at best to outright hostility at worst when it opened in Europe in 2007 and then in the US in 2008. It shares certain similarities with Assayas' impenetrable corporate espionage thriller DEMONLOVER (2003), but is much more streamlined, straightforward work, even with all of its arthouse bells and whistles. Indeed, it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn BOARDING GATE into a commercial chase actioner, but that would be too easy for Assayas, the acclaimed auteur behind the deconstructionist filmmaking satire IRMA VEP (1996), the little seen addiction/recovery drama CLEAN (2004), the keenly insightful family saga SUMMER HOURS (2008), and the incredibly ambitious CARLOS (2010). BOARDING GATE was roundly criticized as Assayas feebly attempting to make a trashy erotic thriller, but such a labeling does it a huge disservice. Yes, it has tawdry and silly elements, but it's far too well-made and beautiful to look at to be so easily dismissed. It may be a tawdry and silly erotic thriller at its core, but BOARDING GATE does its damnedest to be the most hypnotic and compulsively watchable one you'll ever see.

Using the cutthroat financial sector wheeling-and-dealing as a backdrop, Assayas' focus on BOARDING GATE is Sandra (Asia Argento), a lone-wolf antihero with a mysterious past involving drug addiction and prostitution. She's currently working as a shipping and receiving supervisor at a Paris-based import/export shipyard run by Lester (Carl Ng) and Sue Wang (Kelly Lin). She's got a side business running off-the-manifest drug shipments, all part of a plan to ditch Paris and run off to Beijing to buy into a nightclub with Lester, with whom she's having a clandestine affair behind Sue's back. At the same time, Sandra is trying to find closure in her complicated, S&M-heavy relationship with American businessman Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen), whose days as a power player in the world of global finance are behind him and now he's just looking to sell his stake in a French company to settle a debt with some shady Hong Kong investors. Years earlier, Rennberg was a major name in the business world, and Sandra was on his payroll as a corporate spy, seducing Rennberg's rich associates and investors and coaxing secrets out of them for her boss, who was less interested in the information than in what Sandra did to get the information. Rennberg's tendencies toward sexual sadism are at odds with his sensitive side, as he remains very much in love with Sandra even though he gets off on demeaning her ("I'm gonna handcuff you, and then I'm gonna fuck you"). Rennberg has his tender moments, but he's still the kind of guy who likes to play rough bondage games and have Sandra choke him with a belt while she straddles him and jerks him off. Out of nowhere, Sandra handcuffs Rennberg for what he thinks is a game but she instead shoots him in the back of the head, killing him. She flees his apartment and is picked up by Lester, who talked her into killing Rennberg and sends her and another employee, Lisa (Joana Preiss) to Hong Kong to lay low. Once there, Sandra has no idea who to trust, as she's faced with an embittered Sue--who's not all that oblivious about her husband's extramarital flings--as well as Kay (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon), a shady American who oversees a sweatshop specializing in knockoff designer jeans and may have been part of the plot to eliminate Rennberg, which turns into a plot to eliminate Sandra.

A basic synopsis makes BOARDING GATE sound like a predictable suspense thriller, but Assayas isn't interesting in following that path. Much of the first hour is devoted to showing the layers of complexity in Sandra's relationship with Rennberg. It ended badly and both know they can't go back, but that pull is still there, and Assayas lets that play out in a long conversation between the two of them in Rennberg's office, and again in and even longer sequence that takes over 20 minutes of screen time, leading to Sandra's murder of Rennberg. Assayas probably could've got an entire film just out of the relationship between these two characters, and though Argento's reputation as a provocateur and enfant terrible seems to at least partially be a youthful attempt to establish herself beyond being Dario Argento's daughter (it's worth noting that she's fast-approaching 40 and has settled down quite a bit in recent years), it's also done her a disservice even this far into her nearly 30-year career by still eclipsing her acting talent. Away from the drawn-out and depressingly funereal decline of her father's films and his strange habit of putting his daughter in nude scenes that's always left a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste, not to mention her ill-advised attempts to break into Hollywood (Vin Diesel's XXX was a huge hit, but it did nothing for her in America), Argento probably has her career-best role in BOARDING GATE. Sure, the poster art plays on her hellraising, wild-child persona ("She's losing control again"), and Sandra at first seems like another variation on Argento's similar corporate seductress (named "Sandii") in Abel Ferrara's cyberpunk misfire NEW ROSE HOTEL (1999). But she has an alluring, edgy. and intense screen presence that Assayas uses for maximum effect, whether she's parading around in skimpy underwear, touching herself in Rennberg's office, glaring intensely while pulling a trigger, or letting emotion get the best of her in her final meeting with Rennberg.  Judging from her work in BOARDING GATE, somebody really missed the boat by not casting Argento as a cold, ruthless, badass Bond femme fatale of the Luciana Paluzzi variety during the Pierce Brosnan era.

Even if you hate BOARDING GATE, if nothing else, Assayas deserves some credit for being the last filmmaker (as of this writing) to cast the perpetually slumming Madsen in a serious, significant role. Though he exits at the midway point, Madsen's presence is felt throughout BOARDING GATE, and watching this now is both gratifying and depressing. Gratifying in the sense that it's a rare glimpse of the electrifying, early '90s Madsen that showed up for THELMA & LOUISE and RESERVOIR DOGS, and depressing in that today, he's lumped in with fellow promising actors-turned-mercenaries Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Eric Roberts, Tom Sizemore, and John Savage, guys who simply can't turn down a gig, no matter how dubious it is, especially if they're on and off the set in a day or less. Other than SIN CITY and an occasional CSI or BLUE BLOODS guest spot, the last decade of Madsen's IMDb page is infested with the likes of NOT ANOTHER NOT ANOTHER MOVIE, FOREST OF THE LIVING DEAD, PIRANHACONDA, and tons of other instantly obscure and unreleased YouTube-quality titles that barely qualify as films. Watching BOARDING GATE again now, it's almost as if Assayas created Miles Rennberg as a sort-of intervention for Madsen about where his career was heading. The parallels between Rennberg and Madsen are impossible to ignore: a buzzed-about shooting star years earlier, now looking for quick cash and clinging to the fringes of his industry thanks to name recognition and past accomplishments, and with, as Sandra points out, "a body gone to seed." A pasty, schlubby-looking Madsen sells it perfectly with his slumped shoulders, his middle-aged paunch, and a lurching gait that makes him look like he's babying a chronically nagging back injury. The actor does appear in Quentin Tarantino's currently in-production western THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but until that's released, BOARDING GATE stands as the last documented example of Michael Madsen giving a shit onscreen.

BOARDING GATE's second half is where it splits off into its more commercial direction, but even then, there's enough ambiguity in the ending to completely eliminate it from "crowd-pleaser" contention. Assayas and cinematographer Yorick La Saux (SWIMMING POOL, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE) masterfully capture the dizzying, disorienting feel of overcrowded Hong Kong, whether in shopping centers, markets, or just in the busy streets. It's brilliantly abetted by the droning ambiance of selections from Brian Eno's back catalog, like "Lizard Point" and "Music for Airports 2/2," and "The Heavenly Music Corporation," by Eno and King Crimson's Robert Fripp. It all reaches a stunning crescendo in a finale that's heavy on the complicated camera moves and long tracking shots as Sandra follows Lester with the intent of exacting revenge for hanging her out to dry and cutting her out of their club deal. As Eno's music drones and throbs, Assayas comes up just a split-screen and a split-diopter shy of going into all-out Brian De Palma worship. Nevertheless, Sandra's tailing of Lester brings to mind fond memories of similar De Palma sequences like Angie Dickinson following her anonymous hook-up through the art museum in DRESSED TO KILL or Craig Wasson's lovestruck pursuit of his doomed neighbor through an L.A. shopping mall and to the beach in BODY DOUBLE.

Drenched in melancholy and yet alive with kinetic energy, BOARDING GATE seems to be held in higher regard now than it was seven years ago, and as a result, it's formed a minor cult following. By no means a secret masterpiece, it's still the kind of film that improves greatly on subsequent viewings, once you realize where the story is going and can further examine why Assayas has it play out the way it does. And in doing so, the viewer begins to unexpectedly empathize with Sandra and understand the devastation and resignation she feels in that deliberately open-ended final shot as a lifetime of self-destructive choices and terrible misdeeds hits her all at once. Most reviews of BOARDING GATE approach it from the viewpoint of Assayas offering a commentary on the state of global commerce and capitalism. That's all well and good, but it was also covered by the director in DEMONLOVER. Though it turns into a gripping thriller that's a tad esoteric and somehow manages to be convoluted and vague, BOARDING GATE is at its most intriguing in its first half, when it's a much more stripped-down and intimate film with devastating performances by Argento and Madsen...even if it does cleverly disguise itself as a tawdry and silly erotic thriller.

No comments:

Post a Comment