Here's the frustrating paradox of Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate: It's one the most sophisticated, beautifully textured, soulfully acted shitty erotic thrillers ever deserving of a straight-to-video release. Much like Assayas' previous effort, the equally gorgeous, aloof cyber-thriller Demonlover, Boarding Gate is a French cineaste's idea of what a slick, jet-setting contemporary suspense film might look like, not a satisfying execution of same. Assayas' level of interest in nuts-and-bolts genre mechanics is precisely nil; he's more interested in accentuating the gloss of corporate offices and million-dollar apartments, and following the pimps and whores that do business within their walls. The trouble is that Assayas saddles himself with a needlessly complicated plot, which distracts from the other, more elegant distractions that he clearly hopes will occupy viewers' minds instead.
Many of Assayas' films are monuments to the beautiful women at their center—Virginie Ledoyen in Cold Water, Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep and Clean, Connie Nielsen in Demonlover—and Boarding Gate adds another in Asia Argento, whose talents as a provocateur usually exceed her abilities as an actress. Here, she's mostly exceptional as a former prostitute who has a complicated psychosexual relationship with Michael Madsen, a fading player in the world of high finance. Back in Madsen's heyday, he used to send Argento on corporate espionage missions where she used her body to get information, but their relationship has since cooled off. As the film opens, the two haven't crossed paths in a while, but Argento returns to him for business and personal reasons, and they resume their rocky, S&M-flavored; relationship.
Were Boarding Gate as simple as a sexed-up chamber piece, it might have bottled up the compelling tension between Argento and Madsen, whose history together persistently confuses and undermines their obvious magnetism. But Assayas insists on pulling out his passport, whisking the film from Paris to Hong Kong, and delving into blind alleys involving drug trafficking, international imports, nightclubs, and an odd husband-wife romantic rivalry. It's a murky soup, exacerbated by the high-toned kink that tends to make erotic thrillers look silly. Still, Boarding Gate's surfaces are often so staggeringly beautiful that its superficiality becomes forgivable, with the pleasant distractions of Assayas' multi-layered frames, Argento's sinewy allure, and snippets of Brian Eno ambience on the soundtrack. Why can't all movies this inane be this accomplished?