Everything in Boarding Gate happens too fast. Flickers of light, crowds rushing by, jump cuts, discontinuities, inexplicable plot developments, Adderall-inspired camerawork, and a scene-storming Asia Argento, who looks ready to rape anything in sight: such is Boarding Gate‘s fodder. Within the opening few minutes, Argento (as Sandra) assails the public office of an old fling (Michael Madsen, as Miles), asks him to call her his slave, bites and nuzzles her clothes, nearly jacks off, and mocks him—“You got hard when you told me what we were going to do, but less when we actually did it.” The suddenness is nearly the point. Boarding Gate, B-movie heir to Phil Karlson and Ingmar Bergman, screws any pretence of naturalism for hallucinatory confrontations; by one-time master naturalist Olivier Assayas, it’s entirely uninterested in the mechanics of reality. If, like its protagonist, the film is brutally forthright, in B-movie tradition, that’s because all it cares about is expressivity—raw impact and momentum.
However, Boarding Gate, whose delirious oppositions and contradictions are bound to be dismissed as implausibilities and incoherencies, isn’t brutally forthright at all. Like Karlson and Bergman, Assayas is fascinated by the theatrics of ostensibly “raw” confrontations; Argento and Madsen, with all their preposterous dialogue, are obviously role-playing, trying to honestly face a dead relationship and declare it alive. The film’s centerpiece, a half-hour of repeatedly fumbled foreplay, is set against the whitewashed walls of Madsen’s soulless apartment as he initiates sadomasochistic games and fields a phone call about the stock market. The white gloss of the walls, matched by Assayas’s sleek chrome cinematography, not only indicates and indicts Madsen’s dull, soulless life as a businessman trying to find excitement by any means necessary (the film is an implicit follow-up to demonlover), but serves as an empty stage on which the two perform a humiliating danse macabre as they taunt one other with the illusion that they matter even to each other. It is, naturally, a scene of ensnarement: Argento and Madsen can only find relief from each other in each other, in attempting to escape reality by enacting fantasies of entrapment. Yet their supposed self-exposure, physical and otherwise, is clearly a bluff; the real point is that they can’t hurt each other at all. And the scene, hard-cor(e)porate, runs as hot as it does cold.
As does Argento. Whereas even the supposedly feminist Catherine Breillat simply plays Argento as a savage-man in her upcoming The Last Mistress, Assayas makes her as feminine as she is masculine—and as doped as she is lively. Slowly coo-cooing her dialogue as if whimpering baby talk, Argento seems as new to the world as she is ready to fuck it over. She’s through with it and just getting started. Both the first act, filmed in black and chrome, and the last, which opposes the starkness of the first two with the hyper-stimuli of cluttered Hong Kong, find Argento bursting out of traps like a caged Fury. The flipside to Clean‘s tranquil (tranquilized) Maggie Cheung, she’s a woman on the run—and one also with nowhere to go.
Vanishing without a trace is always a promise and a threat in Assayas’s films, all of which are about starting new lives; inevitably, his protagonists attempt to escape society, and inevitably, they do so to little avail. “All my films are fairy tales,” Assayas has said, even while asserting his role as a journalistic filmmaker of the modern world, which is to say that they’re all about characters attempting to shake a recognizable reality by muffling it or retreating to personal fantasies. The plot of Boarding Gate has something to do with people making and breaking deals and shooting at each other, but the point, more literally than in any of Assayas’s other films, is fleeing society—the goal of every character—and breaking out of things, physically, emotionally, and socially.
Plots even break out from each other. As subversive as everything in the movie, Boarding Gate‘s structure isn’t so much dictated by narrative but by parallel motifs of betrayal, vengeance, and entrapment—and by rhythm. The role-playing center-scene has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie; it mostly serves as murderous foreplay building energy for the final act in Hong Kong as Argento flees and flees again. Bizarrely, this is the same framework of last year’s Day Night Day Night, in which a secluded chamber piece also serves as preparation for a guerilla assault on a major city by camera and subject alike. But the totally vacant and uncritical Day Night Day Night is about dutiful people playing assigned roles; Boarding Gate, on every level, is about resisting them. Even the action scenes, with the relentless camera nearly dodging bullets itself, are experimental: Assayas matches all the action not with techno or horns but with a one-note drone on the soundtrack as if to indicate that this verité thriller is really just a dream.
The movie completes an Assayas transnational trilogy about women lost in a completely recognizable reality. Even Assayas’s typically fetishistic camera, flying from one object to another, seems completely unable to find its place. Whereas the equally frenetic camera of Cold Water or Irma Vep seems to piece disparate elements of the world together, Virginia Woolf-like, into some sense of coherency (a bunch of people under the same spell), in Boarding Gate the camera is simply in free-fall. Everything and everyone is disoriented, in a daze—an Assayas trademark—alienated from cultures they can’t enter or leave. But it’s a perfectly calibrated daze. For all its corporate sleekness, Boarding Gate is an avant-garde shoot-‘em-up, an impressionistic montage about a bunch of washed-up nobodies who decide they’re superstars—and so they are. Light-flickers and bullets have about the same flash effect in a world in constant motion, though only the one is pretty; the key moment comes halfway, as Argento simply opens a window shade in an airplane, to let some naturalistic light in, and looks out. If not quite liberating, all the light and movement is, almost there, exhilarating. Would that it ended 15 minutes earlier and didn’t feature a god-awful cameo by Kim Gordon wrapping things up, but so it recklessly goes. Down and totally dirty, Boarding Gate is one of the best genre films in years.