Olivier Assayas made his name from the late 1980s via a series of “typical” intimate French arthouse dramas done with bracing freshness and verve. He felt like a leading light in that country’s cinematic next wave, even arriving at the job as so many New Wave greats had a generation before—by first working at famed critical journal Cahiers du Cinema.
From early youth studies Disorder and Cold Water to 1998’s Late August, Early September, he seemed the latest in a line of Gallic filmmakers who made low-key, casual observation stealthily add up to something powerful. Even his rather large-scale, starry “Les destinees sentimentale” (2000) felt cut from the same cloth.
Irma Vep (1996) appeared a lone aberration (if also a commercial breakthrough), with its cheeky, manic salutes to silent cinema, the original French New Wave, and Hong Kong film legend Maggie Cheung playing herself more or less.
As it turned out, however, Assayas had only begun digressing from his initial path. Recent years have produced one eccentric feature after another. Demonlover was a kinky thriller with Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon; Noise a concert movie headlining Sonic Youth. Clean had Cheung as a recovering heroin-addict mother and Nick Nolte as her child’s grandpa.
Was Assayas going through a “middle-age crazy” period? All reports suggest his latest, Summer Hours with Juliette Binoche, is a strong return to earlier terrain. But if it heralds the end of his “exotic” period (which I’d doubt), that stretch gets a fine sendoff with “Boarding Gate,” which premiered at Cannes last year and is now getting U.S. release. It’s easily the best of this director’s recent envelope-pushing exercises.
Multilingual, London-dwelling Italian Sandra (Asia Argento) has unfinished business with her unashamedly corrupt, hedonistic, abusive American businessman “ex”—played by none other than real-life berserker Michael Madsen.
(Apparently the two actors—Asia being no wholesome girl-next-door type herself—pushed each other quite over the edge during the shoot. Let’s hope forthcoming making-of DVD extras are warts ‘n’ all.)
Their Parisian cobra-versus-mongoose dance lasts the 106-minute movie’s entire first half. Its termination renders Sandra a fugitive in desperate need of far-flung hideout. She’s promised just that by a second lover, mysterious Hong Kong visitor Lester (Carl Eng), and his wife Sue (Kelly Lin). But upon arrival in HK, Sandra discovers that promise betrayed—and worse.
This movie offers a fine workout for Argento, whose negative charisma is perfect for a sallow, medicated, neurotic, sexually and psychologically perverse—yet accusationally victimized—protagonist first seen fleeing a police raid on a drug deal. No major current actress looks more natural vomiting into a nightclub toilet bowl. Her Sandra has a junkie’s instinctual gift for deception etched onto her face. Yet we root for her, because the star’s make-up-free performance makes Sandra at once brave, damaged and vulnerable.
Boarding Gate is raw, silly, bloody, funny, carnal, intricate, coarse and self-conscious. Its first act is almost a two-character play. The second is a race through Hong Kong back alleys and corridors as disorienting to us as they are to jet-lagged, language-impaired Sandra.
It all suggests Olivier Assayas has a lot more surprises in him yet.
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