By Aaron Hillis
Parisian auteur and former Cahiers du CinÃ©ma critic Olivier Assayas (“Clean,” “Demonlover” and perhaps his finest hour, “Irma Vep”) had intended his next film to be a portrait of provincial French life, but in the increasingly difficult world of arthouse filmmaking, his funding fell through. Instead, Assayas surprised many by making “Boarding Gate,” a psychosexual noir-thriller starring screen vixen Asia Argento as a femme fatale (go figure!) who gallivants with underworld types in various states of undress. Called either sleazy or sexy since its premiere at last year’s Cannes (and more on both of those adjectives later), it’s an exhilarating, swaggering globetrot filled with debased sex, illegal smuggling, triple-crosses, and an unlikely pimp-cum-lover played by Michael Madsen. I met Assayas to discuss the film, Argento’s X-factor, why suburban kids should watch his films, and his music geekiness.
How did your backup project come to be, unapologetically, a B-movie?
It didn’t feel like it was an unnatural move, to put it simply. It’s something that had been creeping into my films in different ways, and for some reason, I never had the opportunity to go all the way. Sometimes you have fantasies of the kind of movie that one day you would be making, and the fact that the movie I had written was [either] not happening or delayed, I accepted it as an opportunity to try something radical. When you’re functioning within the framework of French cinema, it’s kind of a radical move. It’s something you’re not supposed to do when you make French films, but I decided it was okay to make strange choices and go in strange directions.
You say how radical it is, but I feel like it shares a lot of blood with “Demonlover,” especially the broad strokes you paint of ambiguous global businesses. Do you see the two films relating to one another?
Oh, yes. I was not conscious of it while I was making “Boarding Gate,” but I suppose that [in hindsight] I see “Demonlover,” “Clean” and “Boarding Gate” as some sort of strange trilogy three movies that make sense functioning together, and have a lot of echoes with one another. But “Boarding Gate” is a much less theoretical movie. “Demonlover” was like a manifesto or something. It’s the one movie I’ve made that is very much about ideas. This one takes place in the world that “Demonlover” defined, except these are two flesh-and-blood characters and whatever is happening could be in completely opposite situations. It’s much more simple and straightforward in its own way.
As a former critic, why do you think genre movies have such a stigma, as if they shouldn’t be taken as seriously?
I know! It’s kind of complicated because genre movies are ambiguous in a sense. Somehow, they can appear as part of the logic of Hollywood, of mainstream filmmaking. Genre filmmaking is almost arrogantly triumphant because they’re huge budget movies that are supposed to crush everything in their way, and independent filmmaking [is supposed to] stand against that. For a long time, it had been my conviction that, more or less, that’s how it worked. I think the problem with arthouse cinema today is that the audience is aging and becoming kind of conservative. It’s closing its eyes to how the world is changing, not even in terms of judgment but in terms of fact.
There’s a new audience out there who have completely different references. All of a sudden, you now have a whole world of academic writing about cinema, a whole world of very conventional storytelling that ends up being [called] sophisticated, highbrow arthouse cinema. At some point, I didn’t want to be part of that because when you make movies, it’s about being in touch with the world as it is. You want to have a dialogue with the world as it is, and with a real audience. My dream is that kids in the suburbs will watch the films, but they won’t… maybe accidentally, they turn on the TV and watch five minutes of it or something. Ultimately, that’s the audience I would dream of reaching because it’s the medium they relate to in defining their vision of the world. It’s important when you are a filmmaker to be in touch with that audience and with that approach of cinema, and I see arthouse cinema drifting away from it.
Are there any films you’ve admired that specifically appeals to the next generation of media-savvy filmgoers you speak of?
Well, I’m not familiar enough with that generation in the U.S., but I see them in France. One factor I’m really struck with is the interest in horror movies. They are the one genre that teenagers all over the world relate to very strongly. It can be 50-year-old horror movies, or it could be now. And why? It’s because they have a physical dialogue with the audience. You react physically to those movies. It’s a fascinating element of cinema, and in some ways, I think what is missing today from arthouse cinema is this relationship to physicality. Why can’t you make an arthouse film that takes into consideration that you can relate physically with an audience? It’s the ultimate way, because if you focus there, it’s a big limit. You have to be able to move out of that, but it’s certainly one of the aspects that mainstream filmmaking has perfectly understood when arthouse cinema has completely missed the point.
So when can we expect to see an Olivier Assayas horror film?
I suppose when I do “Demonlover” or “Boarding Gate,” in some ways, I try to take that [physicality] into consideration. I’m trying to walk the walk. [laughs] You know, I’m trying to make art films that do include my relationship to modern cinema, and even my relationship to modern art. I think you can make very abstract, ambitious films using the language of the broadest audience. They’re open. The problem is a lot of movies don’t manage to get to that audience, and ultimately, the way Hollywood logic works, it narrows the spectrum of what you can or can’t do, what you can or can’t watch.
It’s a blow to art itself that when you push the envelope too far, you risk alienating the masses.
Yeah, yeah. All of a sudden, you try to make movies that are a tiny bit more ambitious. And I’m talking about movies more mainstream than what I am doing. You have big audiences who watch them and say, “Oh no, it’s too slow. It’s too boring. It’s too this, too that.” They end up forgetting what else movies can be; they feel that because the movies don’t function on the simplified level they are used to them functioning, which is all about sitting back and just receiving the film, they think it’s incompetent. They don’t realize that you can voluntarily try different things.
Critics have responded quite differently to the “B-movieness” since Cannes. Do you think “Boarding Gate” is a sexy movie, a sleazy movie, or both?
[laughs] Well, I think the sexy aspect has to do with whatever Asia is, not so much the narrative of the film. What’s so great about her is that she has a sexy presence, totally, and she’s incredibly human. She’s someone you care for, and she has this beautiful screen presence, this specific glow. I think she brings this kind of sexiness completely, effortlessly to anything she does.
In terms of sleazy, I did not want to be concerned with making something that was in good taste. I didn’t want to have these kinds of limits or barriers. To me, I wanted to make a movie that had a kind of roughness and was not scared of occasionally being over the top. There’s a certain degree of brutality in the way it’s made. But whatever it has that’s sleazy is also kind of playful. It’s sleazy in a cartoonish way, that’s the way I would put it. Because there is a cartoonish element in the film, and I wanted that. I didn’t want to make some kind of parody of genre filmmaking, I didn’t want to have fun with the genre. I wanted to be completely straightforward the way Asia or Michael [Madsen] are completely straight-forward. But then, obviously, it’s also a game with the audience. There is a certain level of tongue-in-cheekness there, for sure. [laughs]
Beyond her sexiness, you’ve said that Asia has a rock-and-roll presence. What is that X-factor that you say she instantly evokes?
She has this kind of bad girl thing, it’s just part of her. It’s the way she grew up. I think she had a pretty rough childhood, and she always had to fight to impose herself. She’s a fighter, she’s always been like that, and it’s pretty difficult just growing up [as] the daughter of someone who’s made his fame by being one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and by murdering women [on film]. I suppose it probably involves pretty complicated issues within her, which creates this response, a kind of macho thing about her. She’s someone who has also created some armor around her; she invented this kind of monster, which is a media image. She’s not like that. She’s crazy, she knows she can be out of control, but ultimately, she’s a very sweet, nice person. She’s fun, easygoing, but obviously, she has invented something to shield her from whatever she’s scared of. She’s a scared person, you can sense that, but has this incredible sense of cool, this completely natural thing of just giving herself so generously. At the same time, there’s something very vulnerable about her, so you relate to her. This in-your-face thing, you immediately see behind it, this human being. Very few actresses have that.
I honestly couldn’t imagine any other actress in this specific role.
Oh, I don’t think I would have made the film without her. I had this movie in the back of my mind for ages, but I would not write it. When I met Asia, I said, “Okay. I can make that kind of movie.” I could make some kind of weird genre movie because I have the right person here who has the same culture as me, who has the same complex relationship with her own film culture, of having one foot here and one foot there. She also has a strong connection to the music culture, which is the same thing as me. I grew up listening to music, and it’s part of my inspiration.
Uh-oh, now you’ve done it. What’s on your iPod right now?
Oh, I have a lot on my iPod. [laughs] I sincerely do. Because of this iPod culture, I’ve been rediscovering stuff that I haven’t been listening to for ages. What’s big with me now is the Incredible String Band. I really used to like “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” and I wondered what it sounds like today, so I started to listen to it again. I couldn’t believe it, I think it’s genius. And I’ve been listening to obscure ’60s psychedelia that you find on the internet because you don’t find it in shops anymore, re-releases of stuff like Farewell Aldebaran and Jerry Yester, some folk-rock [such as] Trees and Duncan Browne, an incredibly underrated singer-songwriter. That kind of stuff. [laughs]
[Photos: Olivier Assayas on set, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Asia Argento; Magnet Releasing, 2007]
“Boarding Gate” opens in limited release on March 21st.