Boarding Gate

I was mesmerized by Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), a delirious thriller about sex and lust and murder, money and business, and the international flows of capital. Boarding Gate is stylistically and thematically reminiscent, at least to a certain extent, of Assayas’ earlier film Demonlover (2002); but the new film is (how shall I put it?) more existential, and more embodied. Where Demonlover envisioned the postmodern world as an enormous pornographic videogame, with proliferating fractal levels and self-reflexive loops, and ultimately imprisonment and bondage, Boarding Gate rather presents the world of global capital as a place of lateral connections. Passion is inextricable from the cold calculation of business deals. Everything seems to be interchangeable, or at least exchangeable: sex, money, drugs, clothing and other bulk consumer goods. Everything flows through the conduits of international air travel, electronic transfers, mobile phone calls, and shipping in cargo containers. Everything is a potential medium of exchange, a mode of payment for something else. Everything is regulated by contracts: import-export contracts, murder contracts, prostitution contracts, and BDSM contracts. Boarding Gate presents prostitution, drug distribution, and murder for hire as the quintessential examples of the “affective labor” that makes up the distinctive and dominant part of contemporary “cognitive capitalism”. This is not to deny the continuing production and distribution of physical goods; the gangsters and power brokers of Boarding Gate are involved in all sorts of shady financial manipulations, often enforced at gunpoint, but they also run factories in China that manufacture clothes cheaply for transformation into expensive “designer label” goods in the West.

Assayas gives us a sensuous, almost tactile, sense of this world of total abstraction and ubiquitous commodification. Everything is shot in what J. Hoberman, who doesn’t get the film as all, calls a “jagged yet posh faux-vérité style” (this is an accurate description, as far as it goes, but needs to be understood more positively than Hoberman intended). The film is set in Paris and Hong Kong (and in airplanes flying from one city to the other, and cabs and limos moving down the streets and highways of both cities). It is spoken mostly in English, but with scenes and conversations in French and in Cantonese (untranslated by subtitles, at least in the print I saw) as well. It moves between luxurious condos and busy shipyards, between expensive nightclubs and crowded streets, between airplane latrines and rooms filled with computing equipment. The camera floats hypnotically through these spaces, which always seem tangibly luscious, and yet oddly distanced at the same time. It’s like being at an extremely upscale mall, where everything is beautifully arranged, and almost crying out for sensuous contact and absorption — but at the same time, it is basically a spectacular display, rather than something you can actually use or interact with. There are few still shots; the camera is always moving, zooming in, or panning laterally, horizontally. Sometimes the camera circles back on itself, or restlessly turns left and right. Nearly everything appears in shallow focus; and rack focus shifts are frequent (often used for dialogue instead of shot/reverse shot). There are always blurry planes before or behind whatever layer the camera is focused clearly upon. Everything seems to come in layers: glass, machinery, moving crowds. We see layers through the blurs or transparency of other layers. Everything is immaculate: even blood pooling on the floor after a murder, even the toilets in which the protagonist pukes after witnessing (or actively participating in) such violence. The decor, and the camerawork that presents it to us, are not exactly numbing, even if they are distanced: there is always a sense of cold fever, of icy delirium — epitomized by, but not restricted to, the ritzy Hong Kong nightclub with dazzling disco lights, where somebody is equally likely to thrust a karaoke microphone upon you or to spike your drink.

The plot of Boarding Gate is generic or genre-specific: the genre in question being what’s best described as the slick Eurotrash thriller, with equal parts glamour and sleaze, paranoia and crass calculation. (Think of La femme Nikita, for instance). But in Assayas’ treatment, the genre has been pulverized and twisted and made to go awry. Partly this is a matter of a certain obliqueness and opacity — the genre as a whole emphasizes thrills and surfaces over plot logic and narrative closure, but Assayas gives us so little information that connecting the dots isn’t even the point anymore (though the reappearance at the very end of the film of a character who was previously seen only at the very beginning gives the viewer, if not the protagonist, a sense of what was at stake, and of the overall shape of the presumed conspiracy that drove most of the plot events). But none of that explains the movie’s “moments of delirium,” like when “Kim Gordon… shows up, barking orders in Cantonese” (to cite Manohla Dargis’ lovely review of the film). Boarding Gate has its share of shootouts and tense escape/chase moments; but it also has 10-minute-long dialogue scenes in which ex-lovers argue about the nature of their now-dead relationship. The fragmentation, the irresolution, the continual switching back and forth between moments or sequences that are plot-driven, and ones that are instead purely affect-driven, the insistence that genre conventions and expectations can neither be transcended and escaped, nor fulfilled: all these features of Boarding Gate reflect — or better, work towards, and help to construct the vision of — a world that is too complex and far-flung to be totalized on the level of any grand narrative (paranoid/conspiratorial or otherwise), and at the same time too intricately interconnected to be treated atomistically.

In Boarding Gate, the question is never, “what is actually going on?”, for this is unanswerable (the world of financial flows is intrinsically unrepresentable, as Fredric Jameson already pointed out more than 25 years ago). Rather, the question is, “what is going to happen to me now?” and “what can I do about it?” With the added conditions that these questions can only be asked in the very short term — “what will happen to me in the next week, in the next day, in the next five minutes?” — and that one’s power to “negotiate” the circumstances are extremely limited, because of the limitations on what one can know, the effects of things that one absolutely cannot foresee or control, and the fact that one’s very identity is inseparable from the complex regulative and bureaucratic arrangements generated by the “society of control” (credit cards, mobile phones, passports, etc. — all of which are needed in order for one to have an “identity” at all, but which allow one to be tracked and kept under surveillance).

The problem with what I have said so far is that I have used the impersonal form of “one”; when in Boarding Gate this “one” is a particular, indeed a singular, figure: the film’s protagonist, Sandra, played by the (as always) incredible Asia Argento. (Argento’s position in Boarding Gate is somewhat similar to that of Maggie Cheung in several of Assayas’ earlier movies, notably Irma Vep; but Argento is just as sexy as Cheung, plus ferocious in a way that Cheung could never be.). Argento is dynamic and dangerous: embodying some ultimate hetero-male fantasy of the femme fatale, yet at the same time mocking this role, and the whole fantasy surrounding it, with a deep, who-gives-a-fuck irony. It has something to do with her perpetual pout, and with the way she casually tosses off her lines, as if relegating them to some other plane of existence with which she is basically unconcerned. She does this even when the lines in question are expressing doubt, passion, or pathos, and when her body language reinforces these affects.

As played by Argento, Sandra is both a stoic and an existentialist (oxymoronic as this combination might appear). She combines a ferocious determination (both to survive, and to insist on her own way, even when this is incompatible with the goal of survival) with a clear-eyed, unromantic ability to grasp things in their painful, unadorned actuality, entirely divorced from any sort of fantasy wish-fulfillment, and to accept this fatal unrelentingness. Sandra is the center of the film, its governing point of view, precisely because such a character is the only sort of “center” that can exist at all in a world so thoroughly decentered, so complex and tortuous, and so utterly devoid of empathy, that no sort of “omniscent narration” is possible or even thinkable.

Sandra is both subject and object — as is inevitable (for anybody, but especially and all the more for women) in a world as commodified and instrumentalized as ours is. She is a subject — which is to say an economic subject, or a player — precisely to the extent that she is able to “invest” her “capital,” which is her body, and the mind inhabiting that body, and the actions of which they are capable. We learn that, in the backstory, Sandra has earned her keep from her businessman lover Miles (Michael Madsen) by fucking his clients and reporting back to him both on what they did in bed and what information the client might have inadvertently revealed. It is unclear whether the information thus gleaned was really of any value — but the process clearly turned on both Sandra and Miles — an excitement for which he paid her well. Prostitution may be the “oldest profession,” but it is also the very basis of what we now, in the “new economy,” refer to as “affective labor” or “cognitive” labor. (In describing this whole process as an investment of “human capital,” I am thinking here, in part, of Michel Foucault’s lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics (not yet available in English, though the translation is supposed to be published within the month), where he outlines how neoliberalism has effaced the very conception of “labor” — and all the more of “exploitation” — by characterizing every human being as an atomized individual who possesses a certain “human capital” and whose livelihood is dependent upon the economic “investment” of this capital).

The way that Sandra is thus compelled to be a rational, Homo economicus, utility-maximizing and self-investing subject is precisely why she is also an object, a commodity. For she herself is very much a part of the round of exchanges which characterizes the sleazy economy depicted in the movie (and which we experience daily, in our “real” everyday lives). By this I mean that she makes her living through her body, her sexuality — as women are so often compelled to do. But I also mean that she always, inescapably, physically feels and registers the (often highly abstract and unrepresentable) exchanges that make up the texture and substance of globalized capitalism. This is even the case when she is clearly playing a role (whether lying in order to survive, or playing s&m games for pleasure or profit). We see and hear Sandra/Argento in the depths of orgasm, getting the shakes, puking in a disco toilet, pulling the trigger of the gun again and again in the course of a contract murder set up under the pretense of a little BDSM, trying to fight the effects of a sleeping potion or a date-rape drug that was slipped into her drink, trying to sleep in her seat during a long transcontinental flight, trying to determine whether she still loves her sleazebag ex-lover or only lusts after him, and so on.

Sandra/Argento registers in her body everything that happens to her and around her; and she also acts, violently and determinedly, to the limited extent she is able, to alter the seeming destiny in which she finds herself inexorably inscribed. But these two dimensions do not fit together in any neat or even simply coherent way. (In terms of Deleuze’s film theory, the sensori-motor links of the “movement-image” are definitively broken; we are left with a time-image in which what is suffered or felt cannot be transformed to or discharged in action; and where what is enacted is discordant from, and has no representational correspondence to, the situations in which that action is embedded and to which it cannot appropriately respond. But Assayas’ time-image is predominantly, and indeed overwhelmingly, a capital-image: a possibility that Deleuze only mentions briefly, in passing, and that it has fallen to Jonathan Beller to develop with an ampler theoretical breadth).

Boarding Gate is at once an affectively charged film, and a coldly conceptualized, or intellectualized one. This reflects the way that the society of cognitive capitalism and “immaterial labor” (Hardt/Negri) which it depicts or reflects is itself one that continually transforms affect into currency (and vice versa). At every point in the film, we are thrown back onto passion. But this passion is inseparable from financial calculation and business management. Sandra taunts an ex-lover, before murdering him, by citing an article in an online business publication that detailed and ridiculed his failed financial transactions, and called him “the perfect cliché of bygone times.” Sandra uses this appellation so that it applies to his erotic life as well — he always gets harder, she says, from planning an erotic or business move (the two being inseparable) than from actually carrying it out. The film traces a closed circuit in which singular feelings are differentially valued by being translated into their monetized “universal equivalent”; and where flows of money and capital, in turn, are registered in Sandra/Argento’s embodied subjectivity as incomparable fluxes of affect.

The film ends as Sandra apparently decides not to murder her other ex-lover, the one who has cajoled and manipulated her into disrupting and destroying her own life to such an extent that her only escape is to “disappear” into an entirely new (manufactured) identity (false name, false nationality, false passport, transplantation to an entirely other part of the world — unless this is the cover for yet another betrayal). He has roundly betrayed her, in the pursuit of his own financial transactions; but she still loves him enough, or lusts after him enough, or remembers the sex with him fondly enough (we can’t really tell which) that she finds herself simply walking away (rather than going after him with a knife). I don’t think that this represents a lapse in Sandra/Argento’s otherwise awesome ferocity and determination; it’s rather a fateful decision, and a stubborn insistence, that the reign of universal equivalence has to stop, that something needs to remain incommensurable, non-negotiable, unexchangeable. At this moment, the very end of the film, the screen becomes unreadable: the camera goes from shallow focus to an out-of-focus blur.

6 Responses to “Boarding Gate”

  1. that the reign of universal equivalence has to stop, that something needs to remain incommensurable, non-negotiable, unexchangeable.

    This should also ideally be the message of Christianity, at least its Eastern Orthodox variant, sans the wrath of the punishing God…

  2. Matt says:

    Boarding Gate was good – although I have to say I did want it to end differently. But at least it stylistically ends the way it begins. Assayas’ films often end in an interesting place. And I defend him for that.

  3. nigel says:

    amazing critical response, thanks

  4. […] tired to go on – but for a better read of Boarding Gate you could always take a look at Shaviro’s read, which is very helpful […]

  5. dave says:

    i’m curious as to your take on Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. It seems like the perfect companion to this film

  6. […] analysis and a different appraisal of its ideological undercurrents, see Steven Shaviro’s blog. « Review of Bong Joon-Ho’s Barking Dogs Never […]

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