Kent Jones’s collection of criticism, Physical Evidence, opens with a 1996 essay about Olivier Assayas, “whose name you’re almost guaranteed not to know.” The director’s recognition is more secure today, but for the past few years his presence in theaters here has been phantomlike. His last fiction feature, Clean, was marooned for what felt like forever before its 2006 release, and since then there’s only been his contribution to the omnibus Paris, je t’aime. It’s the flip-side, perhaps, to the popularity of Irma Vep (1996), which everyone seems to have seen but can’t remember the title of.
Assayas’s visibility (or lack thereof) on screens might seem irrelevant, but his new film, Boarding Gate, was partly inspired by industry constraints: this B-movie detour was self-consciously undertaken while a more traditional project was pending. Elements are in place: louche Asia Argento, growling Michael Madsen, guns, S&M and trade skullduggery sans the corporate gloss of Demonlover (but with drugging). Assayas’s thriller about a wanted woman can be ridiculous, but his “rapturously mobile eye” (to quote Jones) makes the unwinding scenes and spaces a pleasure to behold no matter what.
Argento plays drug-running import-exporter Sandra, the ex-lover and escort-assistant to Madsen’s gray-marketeer Miles. After spare Paris interiors, the movie clings to Argento as she flees east to Hong Kong (warehouses, hangover-bright streets) in a hit-and-run plan with current flame Lester (Carl Ng). There, betrayed and on the run, she must escape again. One quality that Boarding Gate shares with B fare is in bearing a rough, truncated hunk of action, intrigue and back-and-forth — though not necessarily in that order. Assayas disassembles, reassembles, elongates: the first half, in Paris, is dominated by talk, two prowly-to-skanky set-piece face-offs with Madsen bullying Argento back into their lurid past.
But even when the conventional thriller action kicks in, Boarding Gate doesn’t sustain excitement because it dwells on Sandra’s essential powerlessness. For Miles, she serviced corporate clients, ostensibly to glean insider info; when we see them together he’s not much further along in his view of her. Her leap of faith to join Lester is undermined by his scheming partner Sue (Kelly Lin), with catty ruthlessness (and a mickey at a karaoke bar). Assayas plus Argento makes a potent combo, given his past female protagonists and her own characters’ tendency to never recover, much less rebound.
Argento’s sprawl and vamps make a smaller impression than her little-kid drawl (as if in post-dental anesthetic). The wide-set eyes are one of many things about her that suggest defiance one moment and vulnerability the next. That precarious state of being also dovetails with the trapped-by-trade globalization of Demonlover, but elsewhere in the supply chain (dockside) and more compelling for that. The sound design is abuzz with a roar that’s maybe the life passing before Sandra’s eyes as she’s pushed to the side; it memorably cuts out when she escapes Hong Kong captors through a hallway door that opens, Wonderland-like, onto a giant cafeteria. (A choice cut comes with the credits: The Sparks’ lunatic ‘The Number One Song in Heaven.’)
But getting there is half the fun in Boarding Gate, maybe most of it: the alert camera adjustments (especially the slow little pivots) keep us in close touch with Sandra and her surroundings. The technical prowess, the kinetic acuity, just feels good, even if the modern reality it’s portraying doesn’t.
Opens March 21 at Cinema Village