Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Boarding Gate (or, Assayas Breaks the Heart)

It seems to me that Olivier Assayas is perhaps the key chronicler of contemporary images – that is, in the sense that the internet, television and dvds have brought us to a kind of “image degree zero” (to paraphrase Barthes). Not without some trepidation, Assayas seems interested in navigating these new kinds of images and how they might relate to new forms of viewing. While his movies are stunningly beautiful and in tune with the movement and solidity of the human body, Assayas’ films are, nevertheless, the only films I can imagine watching on an Ipod or PSP. To clarify – the play of light on/off of surfaces, reflections, mirrored doublings, and images moving in and out of focus are akin to a purely sensory experience (see also: the films of Claire Denis). This rupture between characters/story and pure visual artifice (“plastic” qualities as they are sometimes called) is increasingly at the heart of Assayas’ films, summarized best by the incremental elimination of story and character towards the end of Demonlover: gradually, we are left with mysterious people moving about with mysterious motivations, none of which we can explicate - but what remains is an explicit mood, a carefully constructed milieu of paranoia and confusion that reflects our potentially dangerous physical relationship to a new found visual landscape - as much psychological as physical. The film ends with a young boy watching the end of the film on a computer in his bedroom – welcome to Assayas’ modernism.

One of the more peculiar legacies of the French New Wave, that of the critic-turned-filmmaker, persists to this day, epitomized largely in the work of Assayas. An eighties generation Cahier critic, Assayas parlayed his cinephillia into an oeuvre combining a certain amount of self-reflexivity, large doses of Proustian-style recollection, post ’68 cultural malaise, and a knowing nod towards (but ultimate negation of) the mainstream (a stance of inevitable genre deconstruction). Not to dismiss his contemporaries (fellow Cahier luminaries like Techine and Carax), but Assayas has created one of the most fascinating filmographies in contemporary French Cinema. While Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette et all validated/popularized the American B, Assayas and his ilk had access to a whole new genre of disreputable viscera for the masses – the Hong Kong action flick. Unabashedly populist, filmed quickly, low-budget, and off the cuff, with little regard for the niceties of middle brow entertainment (like coherent plotting and plausible continuity), the Hong Kong film industry offered a bracing reproach to the “tradition of quality” that any self respecting young upstart is compelled rail against (again, we can thank the legacy of the New Wave for this persistent demeanor). After the pseudo-autobiographical Cold Water, a post Big Chill generational summation/contemporary chamber drama Late August Early September, the elliptical period piece Les Destinees Sentimental, and the genre hopping, globalization-gone-amok head trips that are Irma Vep and Demonlover, it comes as no surprise that Assayas has tried his hand at a relatively straightforward thriller. What is surprising is that he has failed so miserably.

The project must have seemed promising, at least on paper – a globe trotting thriller with kinky sex, drug deals gone awry, murder, double and triple crosses, gun fights. But the film comes across as tepid, warmed over trash, and strangely, contains none of the kinetic forcefulness of the Hong Kong films Assayas champions. Assayas’ view of the world can at least partially be gleaned from his casting choices – an Italian who speaks French and English, with American and Chinese lovers, who travels from Paris to Hong Kong and eventually encountering a crime boss played by an indie rock icon. Asia Argento stars as Sandra, an ex prostitute drug addict who dabbles in corporate espionage for (ex?) boyfriend/power broker Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen). It’s an unlikely (and ultimately uninteresting) pairing – an aged American actor known for Tarantino films and straight to video tough guy roles and an Italian sex-pot who has some art film cred thanks to father Dario’s reputation and her frequent collaborations with French intelligentsia approved Abel Ferrara. The first half of the film consists of the two squaring off in increasingly repetitive encounters, with a kind of will they or won’t they do it sexual tension (answer: who cares?). She winds up shooting him at the bequest of her current boss (who she is also sleeping with). The second (more interesting) half of the film then begins, chronicling her on the run in Hong Kong, not knowing where to go or who to trust. Sandra must eventually decide whether or not to extract revenge on the man who has set her up, and the end of the film finds her following him, brandishing a switch blade, then hesitating. The final shot of the film is an epically beautiful take that slowly fades into an opaque, out of focus field of pure metallic sheen as Asia retreats up an escalator. Has she redeemed herself by breaking the cycle of violence that has engulfed her? See answer above.

No Assayas film can be totally without interest – his keen visual sense infuses every scene with the kind of visual sheen we’ve come to expect (albeit without the aid of long time cinematographer Eric Gautier – the credited DP here is Yorick Le Saux), Assayas’ camera is constantly tracking – he insists on 360 degree key lighting – and the effect is important – the constantly circling camera invokes a kind of perpetual motion, as well as a neurotic quality that links the boardroom and the bedroom. The above mentioned liaison between Argento and Madsen has obvious links to Godard’s filming of a disintegrating relationship in Contempt. But replacing Godard’s stately compositions that visually fragment the couple is a camera in constant motion, tracing labyrinthine patterns around a modern home. The trajectory of the camera mirrors the tension in the sexually explicit dialogue, suggesting a tangled inter-personal history, while framing characters through layers of glass and doubling images in mirrors implies the duplicities we can assume to be inherent in this damaged coupling. But the actors are barely up to the task here, and the repetitions in Assayas’ dialogue are miles away from a Mamet or a Pinter. Here, it becomes simply banal, repeating what the camera has already shown us.

Assayas’ sense of films without boundaries is inherently tied up in his sense of globalization – while the world is getting smaller, it is also increasingly difficult to communicate via universally shared images. Or to be more precise, it is increasingly difficult to navigate between kinds of images. Bresson co-exists with manga, The Heroic Trio with Pialat, and we can view a film in a movie palace or on our laptop. It seems to me at least partly a matter of the private versus the personal, a notion that Assayas seems interested in, at least in as much as his last few films involve corporations and financial interests interfering with and manipulating human relationships. To an ex-film critic who has absorbed a multitude of national cinemas, it seems all too natural to assume that we can all get along, at least at the movies. Assayas is smart enough (and paranoid enough) to know that this isn’t the case. Lets hope that his next film gets him back on track.

1 comment:

Lisa Draski said...

This post is really well-written, and I share your feelings about Boarding Gate. I saw this in Cannes in May 2007, at the premiere with Assayas and Argento there, and it was appalling. I think my reaction was a bit more violent, but we're totally on the same wavelength. The key answer to your questions is dead-on: Who cares?? If you're interested, check out my post on it:

Great work on this post. I'm glad someone else is sharing my misery!