There is a scene about 3/4 of the way into Boarding Gate, the new film by French provocateur Olivier Assayas, where his main character, Sandra (Asia Argento), has been slipped a date rape drug and is fighting not to pass out. By this point in the movie, we should be rooting for Sandra, because she's been running for her life to escape Chinese gangsters in some kind of double-cross of her double-cross. I had the complete opposite reaction. I was hoping she would succumb, drop to the floor, and just die. I can't say for sure if it was more because I hated the character so much I wanted her to get her comeuppance or because I hated the movie so much I wanted it to end, but I do know I was starting to feel like the character myself, struggling to get out of some morass of bad storytelling that was trying its best to pull me under.
Assayas films seem to fall on two sides of the divide. There are the good but not great movies he makes with ex-wife Maggie Cheung (namely, Irma Vep and Clean), and then there is stuff like Demonlover and Boarding Gate, which have their fans, but which are also openly reviled by others.
Boarding Gate is the story of Sandra, a loser multiple times over. She is still struggling to get out of the quicksand of a toxic relationship she had with Miles (Michael Madsen), a freefalling business man who used to trick her out to his clients and rivals. There is an uncomfortable push-pull between them, largely spurred on by her noncommittal seductions and denials. Though claiming to have her life on the straight-and-narrow, she is not only using her new job working for furniture importers as a front to smuggle drugs, but she is also boinking her married boss, Lester (Clark Ng), with whom she is additionally hoping to enter into business with, relocating from Paris to open a nightclub in Beijing. To do this, she must cut ties with Miles, inspiring a mid-film twist that gets Sandra out of the country and in that aforementioned danger.
Up until that twist, Boarding Gate is a big pile of "who cares?" and after the twist, it becomes a steaming lump of "you've got to be kidding me." As an emotionally brutal story about a sado-masochist relationship, Boarding Gate is passable. One can certainly buy Michael Madsen as a bullying creep with some dark kinks. For all of her good looks and natural sensuality, however, Asia Argento lacks any appeal in this role, and for the life of me, outside of her supporting spot in Marie Antoinette, I can't think of any movie to suggest she has ever had any appeal. Her mealy-mouthed performance as Sandra has two settings, and both of those are a variation on petulant. Is that supposed to be sexy? I have seen press blurbs for the film praising Argento for what a brave actress she is, and if this is meant to imply that it takes guts to be that terrible on screen, then the people who audition for "American Idol" must be true heroes of the highest stripe.
Argento's performance gets downright laughable when it comes to the more action-oriented back half. Perhaps it's the supreme lack of intelligence that Sandra had exhibited up until her arrival in Hong Kong that allows her to get the drop on the bad guys who would put her out of our misery, presumably thinking she would have so much trouble remembering to breathe there would be no chance of her hatching an escape plan, but it pushes the boundaries of logic pretty far. The actress has no flair for the occasionally pulpy dialogue, and despite the efforts of the studio to make this look like La Femme Nikita in the design of the poster, Anna Parillaud she ain't. Argento isn't even Bridget Fonda in the Nikita remake, Point of No Return.
In cases such as this, though, I always find it unfair when an actress takes the brunt of a bad film. Elizabeth Berkeley took all of the heat when Showgirls was panned, before it was reappropriated as camp, and such rancor toward her conveniently ignored the inane script and the director's inability to capture a better performance. So, too, does Boarding Gate shackle an already limited actress with a muddled story and a laconic shooting style that lacks as much purpose as the plot. This is very much Olivier Assayas' film, and though arguments can be made for his being a challenging director who likes to inspire debate in his audience, I'm starting to think ineptness is being miscredited as provocation, and his occasional successes are just a case of looking at a broken clock at the right time.
Put on top of everything the fact that Boarding Gate has a half-hearted resolution that doesn't even flirt with the outer edges of being satisfying, and you've got a pretty big waste of time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.