Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 26 March 2008
Source Magnolia Pictures 35mm print
It’s nighttime in Hong Kong. Today, Sandra has already traveled halfway across the world, been betrayed by her lover, and realized she has been playing the patsy for an operation much larger than she had originally imagined. She was locked in a warehouse backroom where two men tried to kill her, and she – unarmed – made sure neither of them walked out of the room themselves. After slipping out through a window and dodging bullets through a warehouse, she made her way to the streets and onto a boat, where she now leans against the railing holding the keys to her dead ex-lover’s apartment (a different lover, but no less a scumbag). There’s no triumphant catapulting into the ocean as in Top Gun; instead, just a mildly irritated flick into the sea, as though she were discarding a cigarette, the remnants of another addiction she is finished with, but only for the moment.
Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate, a corporate-corruption-neo-noir, could be imagined as Michael Clayton with a sexy, drug smuggling femme fatale in the lead role. But that would be overly emphasizing the corporate context of the story – an aspect that even the protagonist, Sandra, doesn’t fully comprehend at the film’s end – and denying the visceral desolation and emotional malaise that lies at the film’s core. The difference is this: Michael Clayton (and similar films of its ilk) use characters as slightly somnambulistic pawns that are moved around only to accommodate the plot (like shifting financial figures to balance the books), and its barely decipherable logic is its badge of honor, proof that the film deserves a second viewing. Boarding Gate stands opposed to any such position: as labyrinthine as its plot may be, it is its precise intention to disorient and decentralize the spectator, just as it does Sandra: its overwhelming, jigsaw obtuseness is not the end result, but rather the impetus for a vertiginous journey about reestablishing one’s identity.
Assayas draws great inspiration from noir heritage without resorting to coy mimicry (Brick) or garish period replication (The Black Dahlia), instead injecting its distinct ethos into a more recognizable contemporary setting of the corporate business and urban metropolis. (Asia Argento, portraying Sandra, evokes memories of some of the screen’s great femme fatale actresses: the sexual assuredness of Marlene Dietrich, the coquettish vulnerability of Gloria Grahame, and the action hero(ine)ism of Gena Rowlands in Gloria). Perhaps the major archetypical noir theme is the desire to change one’s identity; however, more often than not, such attempts only lead characters back to where they started. Such is the arc of non-transformation in David Goodis’ canonical novel Dark Passage, in which a character wrongly accused of murder breaks out of jail, undergoes plastic surgery, and finally flees the country in a failed attempt to prove to himself and the world that he is innocent. The ultimate irony is, of course, that such a journey leads him to murder, anyway. Noir protagonists are unable to make any significant differences in their lives, and it often appears as though nothing has changed when it really has: finally aware of who they are, they are also aware of their limitations, and the potential risks they pose to themselves.
The desire for, and failure to achieve, personal transformation lies at the heart of Boarding Gate, and as its complex story deliberately unveils itself, it becomes clear that all of the characters are motivated by this same desire (and they are thwarted by the same lack of self-awareness). One of the marvels of Assayas’ script is the fluidity with which it reveals its characters and situations, like a slowly moving search-light on a dark landscape, briefly illuminating small areas while leaving so much still shrouded in mystery. The film begins not with Sandra, but her ex-lover, Miles Rennberg, the owner of a large corporation who is about to finalize a deal that would place the company under new ownership. Apparently in great debt, Miles sees this as his only hope for getting out and making a new start on life. Into this scenario comes his former mistress, Sandra, who is in desperate need of a million dollars to help finance a club in Shanghai she wants to invest in. Currently working with a furniture import/export company (and trafficking drugs on the side), this club is Sandra’s beacon of hope.
In one swift move, the entire story switches perspectives from Miles to Sandra. Miles invites her over for the evening, presumably to reignite their affair, and she accepts, hoping to borrow the money she needs for the club. When he forcibly prevents her from leaving the apartment, Sandra at first appears to be the victim, but when she pulls out a gun to murder him, the entire dynamic of the situation changes: instead of being the predator, Miles was merely playing the role Sandra was hoping he would. The protagonist/narrative shift recalls a similar pivot in Psycho, when Norman Bates murders/comes across the body of Marion Crane, thus positioning him as the new central character to the story.
Fleeing the scene of the crime, Sandra runs to her current lover Lester, who runs an import/export company with his wife, Sue. As the corporate details of her assassination begin to pile up, so do the emotional complexities that are Assayas’ main focus. Again, as with Goodis’ Dark Passage, fidelity is seeming impossible: couples (married or otherwise) are forever cheating on one another, with the men finding it impossible to even remain faithful to their mistresses. The film even begins with an infidelity of a different sort, with Miles plotting to sell off his company, which to his partner is no different than breaking a pre-nuptial agreement. It is not dissatisfaction which sends people astray – as Sandra points out, Miles could barely stay aroused when he was with her – but rather the promise for a “better,” “newer” identity. The vagary of the terms is intentional, as the characters themselves seem to have little idea what they are after; ultimately, as the characters discover, there is no “new” identity awaiting them, as one infidelity (to job or lover) eventually leads to another.
Assayas borrows one of the central shots of his earlier film Clean – that of Maggie Chung hurrying down several stories of escalators in a crowded mall – for Boarding Gate. In two pivotal moments, Sandra is seen ascending escalators: first, when she first arrives in Hong Kong, hoping to collect the reward money for killing Miles, reunite with her lover Lester, and obtain a new passport and new identity; and second, in the last shot of the film, at the moment when she is closet to simultaneously finding and losing any semblance of her identity. Fittingly, the image loses all sense of focus as she backs away towards the escalator, her face becoming an inarticulate blur. It’s perfectly analogous to the closing of Goodis’ Dark Passage, when the protagonist boards a bus for yet another journey – another “passage” – which will yield a more successful transformation into a new image of himself. But reading those final sentences, it is obvious that the character himself is doubtful that any such transformation is possible: he is just going through the motions. And so is Sandra: riding the escalator, going for another ride, ready to try it all again, but well aware that she is incapable of change, and that the journey ahead won’t be any different than the one to which she just said “Goodbye.”