There's basically only one reason to see Olivier Assayas' self-consciously hypermodern, metasleazy, English-French-Chinese-language globo-thriller Boarding Gate, and her name is Asia Argento.
An authentic daughter of darkness (child of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento) and self-proclaimed Scarlet Diva (the title of her 2000 psychodrama), an actress who gives the impression that there's little she hasn't tried and nothing she wouldn't consider, Argento has sashayed off with nearly every movie in which she's appeared (Land of the Dead, Transylvania, Marie Antoinette, and especially Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales). She was the people's choice for Best Actress last year at Cannes (thanks mainly to her title performance in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress), and, tricked out in stiletto heels and black undies, brandishing a Luger, and flaunting her tramp stamp, she pretty much owns the wreckage that is Boarding Gate.
Argento's Sandra — a Paris-based ex–hooker, erstwhile industrial spy, freelance drug dealer, the one-time mistress of her own sci-fi Web site, and an eventual hit lady — is introduced with her back to the camera and hair piled up, the better to display the "23" tattooed on the nape of her neck: Is she hot stuff or a factory second? Sandra's former lover, the capitalist swine Miles (beefy Michael Madsen), wants out of his import-export racket and, newly divorced, would like Sandra back in his life. In one of the movie's borderline-risible set-pieces, the pair embarks on a long conversation on who used to get off on what, during the course of which Sandra, being Argento, parks a finger of her left hand in her mouth while idly exploring her crotch with the right.
Sandra, it seems, is so totally over Miles that she taunts him with a description she found in an online business journal: He's "the perfect cliché of bygone times." (Let no one say this movie is not prophetic.) Anyway, the stray cat has found a new boyfriend, a more successfully swinish import-export mogul named Lester (Carl Ng), and even holds a day job, running his warehouse with his scarily cool wife (Hong Kong star Kelly Lin, making her international debut). But our Sandra has big dreams: She's moving dope on the side, planning to buy herself a little nightclub in Beijing. When a deal goes seriously wrong, she's compelled to return to sodden Miles, hoping for a million-dollar handout.
Absurd as it sounds, Assayas' scenario is far more slapdash than slapstick, although it does allow Sandra and Miles to trip once more down memory lane. "You kept the handcuffs?" Argento whimpers in her scratchy little voice, waiting two beats to add: "I hate them; they hurt." (As an actress, Argento's line readings — typically mumbled in a toneless sultry whine — have a near-Brando eccentricity.) Thanks to Madsen's volatility and menacing bulk, a constant threat of violence darkens the scene. This time, the tryst goes way, way over the top. Suffice to say that Sandra is compelled to assume the identity of her online alter ego, the superheroine Vortex, and is effectively catapulted, alone and endangered, into the mad maze of Hong Kong.
With gameboy Assayas working the joystick, Boarding Gate returns to the jagged yet posh faux-vérité style that the director introduced in his last international thriller, 2002's Demonlover. The film is a mélange of suave jump cuts, confusing close-ups, and light-smearing action pans, with Sonic Youth's ambient techno providing a measure of audio glue. More than anything else, Assayas has a feel for the routine discomforts of the new global order. (He's particularly good at evoking the stale air and cramped mise-en-scène of airplane interiors, even as his precursor Wim Wenders doted on the now-quaint glitzy placelessness of international airports.) But unlike Demonlover, Boarding Gate has little new to offer, and Assayas' attempt to hijack and import a strobe-lit, glass-shattering, Hong Kong–style chase-cum-shootout, complete with drugged drinks and interpolated karaoke, only serves to accentuate the movie's mediocrity.
Quelle déception! Assayas is the most versatile of mid-career French directors. He has made excellent youth films, notably Cold Water (1994); shown a willingness to essay an Eric Rohmer–style talkathon with his Late August, Early September (1998); demonstrated a flare for novelistic "cinema of quality" in his 2001 adaptation Les Destinées; gone slumming with Demonlover; and turned mawkish two scenes into the jet-setting-hipste,r soap opera Clean (2004). But he has never topped the infectious cinephilia of Irma Vep, his 1996 love letter to Maggie Chung, a movie that, by incorporating aspects of Wong Kar-Wai's neo-new-wave-ism into a self-reflexive movie-about-making-a-movie, managed to be an East-meets-West triumph, the world's greatest example of nouveau neo-new wave.
Boarding Gate, like Demonlover, is a nastier version of Irma Vep, protesting without much conviction a world that the filmmaker clearly enjoys. A few Boarding Gate defenders have observed that, as pulp heroines go, Argento is far more compelling than Chung. True enough: Chung is playing a movie star in Irma Vep; Argento, as she performs in Boarding Gate, is a star — although, with her piercing Bette Davis eyes and perpetual pouting smirk, she's also a look. There hasn't been so insolent a bad girl since the late–'70s punk queen Lydia Lunch, nor so bizarre a femme fatale since the prehumanitarian Angelina Jolie. Argento is a nexus of contradiction. She's a creature of premeditated instinct, a submissive dominatrix, at once abased and triumphant.