Writer/director Olivier Assayas' latest work fails to live up to his potential

Boarding Gate

on March 20, 2008 by Wade Major

When French writer/director Olivier Assayas made Les Destinées back in 2000, he seemed to genuinely be reaching for the stars. Most of his subsequent efforts, however, have done little but dredge the gutter. From the porn-theatrics of Demonlover to the Canadian drug-grunge of Clean, it’s become almost impossible to remember the filmmaker that Assayas once was—and perhaps could be again.

The latest entry in this perplexing preoccupation with lowlifes is Boarding Gate, an astonishingly un-thrilling thriller about a nihilistic hooker named Sandra (Asia Argento) whose previous affair with a successful, but deeply indebted, businessman (Michael Madsen) and current affair with an Asian black marketer (Carl Ng) embroil her in a convoluted cat-and-mouse game that results in several pointless deaths and one equally pointless location change to Hong Kong (one of Assayas’ enduring obsessions).

Deviant sex once again plays a part here, with Sandra’s archetypal femme fatale winding up her male devotees such that even greed takes a back seat to lust. But all is not as it seems, and the film soon devolves into a series of reversals and double-crosses that seem to have no purpose other than to move the production to Hong Kong.

From a noir standpoint, it’s enough to make Joe Eszterhas look like Dashiell Hammett—plot particulars are given short shrift while two prolonged encounters between Argento and Madsen (one in an office, the other in his apartment) drag on interminably and go absolutely nowhere.

It’s clear that Assayas thinks he’s making a moody character piece, probing the turbulent psyche of a restless soul as she becomes emotionally and morally unhinged. But Argento never really makes it stick. Beyond her amply tattooed, hard body and piercing exotic eyes is a vapid sea of dull. What little dialogue she is able to mumble intelligibly comes off as pretentious, at best.

Assayas, for his part, tries to give the piece a visual urgency, quick and dirty with abundant close-ups and the kind of handheld camerawork that tends to induce carsickness. It’s intentionally disorienting, perhaps too much so, but the style does end up being one of the film’s few distinguishing factors.

Given the picture’s low budget, it’s possible that it need not do more than strike a chord with a certain niche audience for whom Argento and Madsen are near-royalty. Financial considerations aside, Assayas’ battered reputation as a fallen auteur is likely to persist.

Distributor: Magnet
Cast: Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Kelly Lin and Carl Ng
Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Producer: François Margolin
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and some drug material.
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: March 21

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