On a rainy March afternoon, the French director Olivier Assayas is typing a text message on his cell phone in the café Le Progrès in Paris’ 3rd Arrondissement. It’s the sort of thing you might not even notice — he’s hardly the only texter in the room — if you haven’t seen Assayas’ new film, Boarding Gate. There, the texting is generally of a life-or-death nature, and the technology almost always unfriendly, as an ex-prostitute/drug runner (Asia Argento) escapes a grisly Paris crime scene by fleeing to Hong Kong, where she finds herself on the run from an assortment of sinister businessmen (and - women) whose nationalities are as murky as their motives. Indeed, from airports to data ports, the points of departure are many in Boarding Gate, but the film’s title more accurately describes a state of mind — a fluid, borderless technoreality in which we can be at once everywhere and nowhere, able to disappear, or change identities, with the touch of a button.
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World traveler: Assayas on the Boarding Gate set
In that respect, the film carries strong echoes of Assayas’ 2002 corporate cyberthriller, Demonlover, in which rival French and American firms competed for the licensing rights to state-of-the-art, virtual-reality Internet-porn technology. But where Demonlover was pure fiction, Boarding Gate takes its inspiration from yesterday’s headlines — specifically, the strange case of Edouard Stern, the 50-year-old French banker known as the “Mozart of Finance,” who was found dead in Geneva in 2005, shot four times and covered from head to toe in a latex body suit. Suspicion quickly centered on Stern’s longtime mistress, 38-year-old French prostitute Cécile Brossard, who, after fleeing to Australia and then returning to Switzerland, eventually confessed to the crime.
“It was like reality had stolen a scene from Demonlover,” says Assayas, who at the age of 53 still speaks with the feverish enthusiasm of the young film buff who began writing for the famed French film journal Cahiers du Cinema while in his early 20s. His sentences tumble over one another, interrupted occasionally by the high-pitched giggle that says he finds something especially amusing or ironic. “When I was writing Demonlover, everything sounded so much like fantasy, and all of a sudden, reality was even more absurd, more brutal, more over-the-top than what I had imagined.”
So, Assayas began to conceive of a new film that would pick up where his earlier one left off, but which would tell its story in less abstract, more human terms. What fascinated him most, he says, were the multiple theories as to just what had gone so fatally wrong between Stern and Brossard. Was it simply, as Brossard claimed, a crime of passion brought on by Stern’s broken promises to marry her and pay her $1 million? Or was it, as some in the press speculated, a contract killing instigated by one of Stern’s powerful enemies in the world of international finance? “Basically, the newspapers were split between those two possibilities and trying to figure out which of them made the most sense,” Assayas recalls. “But, ultimately, what got me interested was the notion that it could be both.”
Where Demonlover runs amok with corporate-espionage artists double- and triple-crossing each other into oblivion, Boarding Gate spends much of its time honing in on a single obsessive relationship between Argento’s Sandra and the movie’s Stern surrogate, the debt-addled American businessman Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen). As the movie opens, these two ex-lovers and former associates — he used to pimp her out to clients, from whom she was expected to extort valuable information — drift back into each other’s orbit. That in turn sets the stage for the movie’s jaw-dropping second act, in which Sandra and Miles’ complex relationship comes to a head in a 25-minute S/M pas de deux that ranks among mainstream cinema’s most unsettling acts of psychosexual attraction.
Filmed in a mere four days, the sequence is a brilliant showcase for the gruffly intense Madsen (who has tended to languish in direct-to-video schlock between roles in Quentin Tarantino movies) and the volcanic Argento, who stalks through each frame of the film like a lioness on the prowl. Shooting the scenes, Assayas says, life often came close to imitating art. “Day after day, it was kind of building up and becoming both hypnotic and scary, and I think it was one of my strongest cinematic experiences. We were shooting five- and six-minute takes. We would hardly rehearse them. Then we would change them from one take to the other. It got really wild. Everyone was exhausted. It’s the kind of situation where both the actors and the crew get carried away by what’s going on.”
If, in its general outline, Boarding Gate sounds like the sort of movie that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a 1980s Times Square grindhouse, that too is part of Assayas’ grand design. As with Demonlover, he was attracted to the idea of making a pulpy, cut-and-run genre movie, albeit one that refused to play by the usual rules. “I completely disagree with the notion of genre being some kind of framework where you just put on your slippers and follow the path,” he says. “People think that doing a genre film means reproducing things that have already been done. But what’s interesting about genre is the possibility to constantly reinvent it and use it for new ends. Genre gives you a freedom — it’s a fantasy happening within the framework of everyday life. It’s reality going awry.”
So, just as the film noir of the 1950s frequently addressed harsh social realities (crime, poverty, divorce) softened or altogether elided by more-respectable “A” pictures, Assayas hopes audiences will find Boarding Gate to be not merely a lurid erotic thriller but a movie about “real people living real lives and being taken over by the strange logic of the modern world, and the strange logic of its circulation. By that, I mean a French banker living in Switzerland dealing mostly in Russia being murdered by this woman who then flees to the other end of the earth.”
In the real case, a panicked Brossard flew from Europe to Australia and back again within a single 48-hour period. For Boarding Gate, Assayas chose Hong Kong as Sandra’s final destination, as a way of shooting in — and paying homage to — the city that has influenced his own filmmaking (and film viewing) ever since he prepared a now-legendary special issue of Cahiers devoted to Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s. “So many times over the years, when I was looking for locations, when I was writing a scene, when I was imagining shots — for movies I was shooting in Paris — I had Hong Kong in mind,” says Assayas, whose Asiaphilia was on full display in his deliriously inventive 1996 movie-about-moviemaking, Irma Vep, which starred the director’s future wife, Chinese actress Maggie Cheung. “To me, Hong Kong has always been this dynamo of modern energy, and I’ve always had the notion that because I love the city, because it’s so beautiful, because it’s so complex, because it’s one of the most cinematic cities in the world, that one day I would have to shoot there. It was a very interesting moment, to be there on the streets in the actual city, when you’ve been using some kind of weird fantasy of the city in your previous films.”
Since finishing Boarding Gate, Assayas has completed two additional features: Eldorado, a documentary about modern dance, which includes one of the last filmed interviews with German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen; and Summer Hours, a French family drama starring Juliette Binoche, which Assayas found far more difficult to finance than any of his recent, predominantly English-language international coproductions. “The French film industry can be very insular,” he says, noting that producers remain oriented toward broadly accessible mainstream dramas and comedies like the current runaway French box-office smash Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis rather than the more independent-minded films of directors like himself, Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis.
Writing in 1998 in The New York Times, the critic Philip Lopate dubbed Assayas’ generation of French filmmakers “the new New Wave.” A decade later, Assayas says, “because we have some international recognition, there is a certain level of suspicion about us in terms of the French industry. As a consequence, it just makes life a little bit tougher.”
Still, with Summer Hours having just opened to the best French box office of his career, Assayas feels compelled to decide what he wants to do next and strike while the iron is hot. “I have two projects, and I have a lot of pressure to start moving now, like today, and I’m being a little cautious,” he says. “Not in the sense of making the right move — I’ve never really been concerned with that, and I’ve always made the wrong move in terms of any kind of career logic. I just want to be sure I make the film I want to make.”
Boarding Gate opens Fri., March 28, in Los Angeles theaters.
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