Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Faraway Places

Asia Argento writes stories and novels, directs music videos, documentaries, and feature films, and appears in movies, sometimes with her clothes on. In Olivier Assayas’s new international thriller, “Boarding Gate,” she plays Sandra, a very smart prostitute.

In the past, Sandra has done some nasty work for a Paris-based investor (Michael Madsen) who was also her lover—she slept with his clients and listened to their secrets. Now she’s working at an import-export company, receiving drugs sewn into the bottom of plush armchairs, and she wants freedom—an escape to China, which is treated in this movie as the Wild East of capitalism. Slinking into the frame, with her lower lip hanging loose, Argento’s Sandra is both dependent on men and contemptuous of them, both seductive and unsure of herself, a dirty girl who may be looking for love.

Ninety years ago, Theda Bara, the original movie vamp, lured men to their doom, but Bara, even at her most alluring, looked like a sweet young woman dutifully doing a job. Born Theodosia Goodman, in Cincinnati, the daughter of a tailor, Bara was a mild fantasy figure (“the woman who did not care”), irresistible in an age more easily stimulated than our own. Argento, by contrast, was born into a movie family: her mother is the actress Daria Nicolodi and her father is Dario Argento, the horror-movie director and master of luridness.

Now thirty-two, Argento has been onscreen since the age of nine. Her acting technique is rudimentary—she bluffs her way through scenes, drawing on sheer nerve—but I’m willing to grant that technique may sometimes be beside the point. In “Boarding Gate,” she’s lewd and hungry, but she’s not boring—the character keeps changing, and you can see Argento’s mind working behind all the viperish moves.

For Assayas, Argento may be a kind of dream girl. The fifty-three-year-old French writer-director first attracted notice here in 1997, with his exhilarating and poetic thriller “Irma Vep.” Like Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” the movie was devoted to the making of a movie—in this case, an attempt to redo Louis Feuillade’s great silent serial of criminal life in Paris, “Les Vampires.” Assayas threw a wild card into the picture: the director of the movie within the movie (Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud), an aging, mad genius of the New Wave, has the daft idea of remaking the Feuillade film with Maggie Cheung, the star of the Hong Kong cinema. This vampire scoots across Paris rooftops wrapped in gleaming black leather. Assayas, it was a fair bet, had a thing about powerful, kinky women.

In his films, people move fast, thrashing in and out of rooms, and the camera stays with them, catching faces and fragments of bodies as they blur by—it’s life on the whiz, spontaneous, abrupt, and dangerous. The sexual play can be dangerous, too. In the 1998 “Late August, Early September,” Assayas constructed a charming and melancholy roundelay of romantic liaisons and friendships among hard-up young Parisian intellectuals. Most of the scenes are devoted to personal feelings and anxious talk about work and money, but, mixed in with the soulful nattering, one of the women, played by the classically beautiful Virginie Ledoyen, went in for bouts of rough sex. Some of us were beginning to wonder where Assayas was going.

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