Boarding Gate - Olivier Assayas
Credit: Mubi
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Boarding Gate — Olivier Assayas

November 28, 2022

In his introduction to Olivier Assayas’ autobiographical essay/memoir A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, Adrian Martin writes that “Assayas has always identified himself with three particular tutelary figures who all proclaimed themselves, in effect, ‘against the cinema’: Debord, Andy Warhol, and Robert Bresson.” He continues: “How might we square Assayas’ own narrative-based, kinetic and lyrical, often spectacular films with the […] lessons of [Guy] Debord, Warhol, and Bresson?” Martin suggests that the proceeding writings attempt to “arrive at and justify these contradictions,” which is certainly true enough. But these conflicting modes are ever present in Assayas’ work itself, with or without accompanying supplemental reading. A kind of spiritual companion to Demonlover, Boarding Gate is arguably Assayas’ most elliptical film, a slippery, extremely opaque sorta-thriller that eschews traditional plot mechanics for a bad-vibes trip through a 21st century wasteland of liminal spaces. Kent Jones has referred to this as Assayas’ films moving “at the speed of life,” an “unusual quality that extends well beyond the matter of pacing. It has to do with the sense of personal agency […] the phantom awareness of how one measures up against other people, within society, as a citizen of the world.” Think of it as an odd combination of Bresson’s The Devil, Probably and Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, both films about damaged people traversing nocturnal cityscapes in search of… something.

In Boarding Gate, Asia Argento plays Sandra, former lover and employee of shady businessman Miles Rennberg (a bloated, past-his-prime Michael Madsen). Actually, the film begins with a master shot of two blurry figures floating in space before the camera focuses on the barrel of a gun, which Madsen promptly fires directly at the screen. Clearly, the specter of violence will haunt the entire narrative, an ever-present sense of danger that never quite recedes into the background. After Miles leaves his meeting with Andre (the great Alex Descas), in which the two discuss the selling of stocks and settling debts to shady corporations, Sandra and Miles meet in his office in Paris. A long conversation ensues, the pair engaging in alternately tense and playful banter that delivers just enough exposition for audiences to understand both the fraught nature of their relationship as well as the sexual gamesmanship they share. She taunts him, turns him on, even mocks him, pushing right up to the edge of actually infuriating this man. Miles raises his voice and Sandra relents, suggesting a detente of sorts.

Agreeing to meet at Miles’ home later, we then follow Sandra to her current job, supervising the shipping of assorted goods for importers Sue (Kelly Lin) and her husband Lester (Carl Ng). Sandra and her friend Lisa (Joana Preiss) then embark on a drug deal which quickly goes south when the buyers turn out to be cops. Lester discovers Lisa on lookout duty and sends her away before then helping Sandra escape. Soon, they’re sleeping together, which Lester later lies to Sue about. It’s not long before Sandra then winds up at Miles’ condo, all pristine white walls and glassy sheen (a “dead-tech, post-modernistic, bullshit house,” to borrow a phrase from Mann’s Heat). What follows is a long, protracted sequence that observes Sandra and Miles replaying their dysfunctional relationship in one long, agitated evening, drinking and smoking while prowling around each other like predators. As critic Gina Telaroli observes, the character’s interactions are “primarily physical,” and that Assayas is “less interested in what people say than in how they say it.” Indeed, the sequence is very much about mapping out the space of their argument (or foreplay, as the case may be). The encounter becomes a charged dance between the transactional and the genuine — are there any real emotions to Miles besides his simmering anger? We seem to get an answer when he finally snaps and forces himself on Sandra, who appears to give in to him only to gain the upper hand and then shoot him dead.

Now on the run, the action moves from Paris to Hong Kong, as Sandra enlists Lester’s help to set her up in this new place and eventually make a move to mainland China. Here the narrative becomes more complex; Sue turns up instead of Lester, revealing that she knows all about her husband’s infidelities, and poor Lisa becomes collateral damage. Eventually, Andre returns, suggesting that Sandra has been set up and that Miles was targeted for assassination from the very beginning. It’s all a bit vague, even nebulous, but Assayas seems more interested in movement and action than plot. Steven Shaviro writes that both Demonlover and Boarding Gate are “unavoidably fractured and fragmented because the space they explore is non-Euclidean, and not cut to human measure.” He continues: “For the same time that the space of global capital is abstract, it is also overwhelmingly proximate, and hyperbolically present… movement through this space is therefore not smooth and continuous, but abrupt, nonlinear, discontinuous.” It’s an apt description of Assayas’ approach to story — it’s not particularly important to discern exactly what is going on, indeed the confusion places the audience squarely in Sandra’s shoes. Instead, it’s a kind of mimetic attempt to map the speed-of-light interconnectedness of a globalized world onto the consciousness of one put-upon woman. Assayas and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (who became a longtime collaborator with this project) construct a dizzying mise en scène of whip pans, dolly shots, and handheld close-ups, always carving the space around Argento into bits of fractured abstraction — this is the abruptness and discontinuity that fascinates Shaviro. She is out of place, out of time, a traveler always coming to and then leaving, never staying.

It all ends with one of Assayas’ most beguiling images, an out-of-focus shot that portends either violence or grace. It’s likely Argento’s greatest role, the one which most fully explores her peculiar gifts and sultry energy. She’s always moving, and Assayas is careful to show her face frequently, allowing emotions to play out in subtle ways. She might be lying to her various lovers — it’s unclear if she even knows herself — but when she looks away and allows a smirk or defiant gaze to drop and her eyes well up with tears, it feels like a truth being revealed. Argento, of course, directed several films herself, and has a fascinating relationship with being in front of the camera. She gives a carefully calibrated performance, one that doesn’t shy away from sex and nudity (not for nothing could Hollywood never figure out exactly what to do with her; Argento was always more interesting than the ostensible leading men she was placed alongside), but also full of grace notes, little bits of business that say something about a character that words might not convey. She’s all coiled energy, long sleek limbs that seem comfortable wrapping a belt around a lover’s neck, but which can barely hold a gun. As filmmaker Ryland Walker Knight has expressed, she’s “a figure of love” who is out of place in Assayas’ conception of modernity. In the end, then, it’s perhaps more accurate to observe that Boarding Gate is less a thriller than a tale of doomed romanticism.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.