Olivier Assayas has made a movie out of a skeleton. In the spirit of the financial and creative constraints of B-movies, Assayas has taken his latest film, Boarding Gate, filled it with bare characters moving briskly across limited landscapes, and gotten a skimmed, thinned result of considerable kinetic emptiness. It goes beyond what is essential to a film, goes one step further and subtracts a small essence, perhaps even a bit of sensibility, and leaves this strange, dazzlingly hollow impression behind.
The plot is this, like so many old Hollywood films, cramming something as serious as love abruptly against something as dull as man's business. Asia Argento plays an ex-corporate whore, literally; once boyfriend of and prostitute for ambiguous global businessman Michael Madison, the couple each enter the film after all is said and done: their love, their business, their crimes, their passion. As is standard with Assayas and so welcome in the energy and effort it forces from the audience, Boarding Gate starts in the middle, or even more precisely, at the end. With a brash, unexpected amount of gumption, Assayas gives almost no specific information about the plot and characters, and starts the film after almost all the heat and action in this hot action movie are over.
With a great deal gone or missing from the core of the film, much has to be made of very little. Only Argento's throaty, half-swallowed murmurs even get close to hinting there was something true between her and her arms-dealing, shell-gaming, now broke-off-his-ass pimp. The two spar in two long set pieces in an office and an apartment like something out of Godard's Contempt: dead love squabbling, passions flaring up, petty sniping and total bitterness. No context is given to true feelings or a real past, we see only role-playing and game playing, S&M, grudges, buried feelings, and false heat.
Assayas' diamond-hard cutting and zoomed cameras, tracking rapidly and attracted to reflections, object, actions, motion and impressions, fill the void, giving us the exhausted energy of these two: fed up, scornful and desperate. If the film initially suggests, and later cryptically confirms, that a thriller-engine drives Boarding Gate's movement and energy, and these early scenes focusing on a relationship, an emotional depth, and a psychological nuance that all seem pretty improbable, it is the result of Assayas strenuously experimenting with the B-form, sketching bare characters across elaborate backstories and colliding them in a low-budget drama of intensity and dazzlingly contained impressionism to attempt to make up for this lack with a skeletal frenzy.
But the filmmaker is not just taking up the reigns of those spare, oft-inspired films of old, but rather questioning them to their core. In such brevity, in such briskness, with so little, can one believe in love and crime, those two great motivators of thousand plots and hundreds of classics? Put in a more worldly manner, can these things retain their power and meaning in a more fluid, abstract postmodern world of globalization? If demonlover (2003), the Assayas film this most superficially resembles, so powerfully conjured up the tasteless air of a moral and ethical vacuum in a trendy, globalized world of international business, jetlag, and espionage, Boarding Gate drains even that dangerous, empty feeling down to an even purer, more ungainly kind of abstraction. It is so hard to make out what is happening and where to such a degree that the why is never in question. We are lucky that Madsen and Argento, and later Kelly Lin and Carl Ng as the movie's Hong Kong connections, are familiar faces, because otherwise everything might be unrecognizable in the anonymity of the film's beautiful, bleached pastels. Can one imagine a film where, in an attempt to escape it all, Asia flees to a Hong Kong that is almost as featureless as the city of Paris she leaves behind?
But that's not really the point; the point is that when you are operating this quickly, this cheaply, and with so little, can you wrest something real from that? The answer, most film fans would agree, or at least hope, is yes, and point to the myriad of sorrowful, lovely, or over-ripe B movies that had the luck to stumble out of awful production situations under the glorious cross of productive circumstance and artistic inspiration. But I think Assayas is working another tack, abstracting his filmmaking as he opens his film up globally and asks very vital questions about the validity and believability of film in our time. He finds a kind of emptiness and bankruptcy in method and ultimately in content in a very different international context than the films of the 1940s. By the end, when Asia needs to make a choice about love and money and honor, she walks away, and this is not due to some moral awakening that has occurred during her tumultuous experience crossing countries, fleeing spaces, and jumbling her senses, but rather a realization that neither love nor money mean anything anymore in the context of our New World. The film itself realizes a great emptiness that it has tried to fight, tried to find a core in, jumping from the money, to the heart, to the sex, to the action, to the exotic, and finally to a lesson, and found nothing, nothing at all. Except, perhaps, the identification of a need for something, something to fill that gap.