Olivier Assayas's "Archetypally Modern Drama"

By Steve Erickson

Olivier Assayas

Italian director Marco Ferreri named one of his films The Future is Female. For Olivier Assayas, that's a given. His latest American release, Boarding Gate, marks an unofficial follow-up to his 2002 cyberpunk opus demonlover. With it, Asia Argento joins Maggie Cheung, Virginie Ledoyen and Connie Nielsen in the ranks of Assayas heroines. It traces ex-prostitute Sandra's (Argento) travels through France and Hong Kong after murdering her lover Miles (Michael Madsen), a corrupt banker with whom she played SM games. As in demonlover, women both call the shots and are victimized by capitalism, sexually and otherwise. Here, Assayas combines a tres French talkiness with influences from North American and Asian genre cinema, creating an unusual hybrid.

Your use of music in Boarding Gate is very striking, particularly the Sparks song that plays over the closing credits. At what point in the filmmaking process do you decide what music to use?

At the last minute, with my back to the wall! It's true. When I was making Boarding Gate, I had no idea what kind of music I was going to use. Sometimes I just wait for things to come to mind. When I was editing Boarding Gate, I knew I did not want to use the music of Brian Eno because I used it in Clean. Then I tried this, that and other things. I couldn't come up with something that worked, including no music at all. I tried a hundred different things. At some point, I realized that Eno's music was the one thing that worked. I suppose it has to do with the connection to Clean. I just couldn't escape it.

For the end credits, I just had a renewal of my interest in Sparks. "The Number One Song in Heaven" is from an album I didn't know. I started listening to it and liked it a lot. I wanted a sudden shift of energy at the end of the film. I listened to Sparks when I was a teenager, including the very early albums like A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, Kimono My House and Propaganda. Gradually, I lost interest, which was silly. I was completely unaware of their disco period and didn't listen to the Giorgio Moroder-produced stuff. The version I used of "The Number One Song in Heaven" is their own remix, not the version he produced.

Boarding GateIn your films, there's a tendency to see women's problems as emblematic of the dilemmas of the present and maybe even the future. Is that deliberate on your part?

It's one of the things that's most difficult to discuss. It lies in the way I tell my stories and what inspires me. It's something that attracts me to the energy of filmmaking. I would not have made a movie like Clean without Maggie or Boarding Gate without Asia. Both those movies are about a central character who's at the core of the film and whose energy and relationship to the modern world ends up being the subject of the film. It involves having the right actress in front of you. I don't think of my films as being about women. I think of them as being about Maggie or Asia or Virginie Ledoyen.

You've mentioned that Boarding Gate was inspired by an incident where a businessman died during SM sex. Is the character of Miles based closely on a real person?

I moved away from it because the case hasn't gone to court yet. I didn't want to come too close to the reality of it because I could have gotten sued. It's pretty similar. A washed-up banker, past his glory days, who's involved in shady transactions, ended up being killed during an SM session by an ex-lover. The woman fled to Australia. She locked herself in a hotel room in Sydney for three days, freaked out, came back to France and was arrested. To this day, it's not clear why she did it.

Did you do any research into the business world?

Sure. You have to. In this movie, I didn't feel like I had to dive very deep. Miles is a pretty standard businessman. He's one of those guys who are on the fringe between legal and illegal business. He's not alone. That's a big part of today's economy. In terms of the circulation of money in the world today, some of it is visible and legal and some is illegal. The illegal part is a magnet for a lot of businesspeople. It involves, in Europe, dealing with Russian mafia. Obviously, Miles is a victim of one of those kinds of deals.

Do you see the connection between sex and capital as a recurring theme in your work?

I see a connection between sex and the relationships created by control and power within the capitalist system. I do think that money, power and sex in every single stage of civilization have functioned together. It creates distortions connected to the specifics of today's world. To me, it's something very fascinating. I've always been interested in exploring it. It has a lot to do with how the world functions in minor or major ways. In Boarding Gate, I didn't go into the subtleties that make up our everyday life. It's genre filmmaking, dealing with life-or-death issues, and emphasizing its themes upfront. But those themes have always been part of my work.

Were you interested in working with Asia Argento because she's also a filmmaker?

Yes. I just love to work with actors who are also creative people. I don't direct actors, I work with them. I need people who have their own understanding of cinema, with whom I can have some dialogue. Maggie's also a very creative person. She writes. She's very open to the world. She's not someone you just direct. The same with Asia. She also writes poetry and directs films. She makes music. She's s a very fascinating, creative and original artist. She's the kind of actress I like to work with.

Boarding Gate

 

Michael Madsen has published several books of poetry.

And photography. I suppose it's one of the reasons we got along.

Do you have any interest in going further towards the avant-garde, maybe making a longer film along the lines of the ending of Irma Vep?

The closest I've come to making it is a music movie I made a few years ago, called Noise. It only came out on video [in France] because it's completely abstract. I had an offer from a music festival in France to program one evening, including Sonic Youth and singers who had acted in my films, and the Canadian band Metric, who were in Clean. They were all on two stages. In the case of Sonic Youth, Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] played as Mirror/Dash and Lee [Ranaldo] and Steve [Shelley] played as Text of Light. For Mirror/Dash, they asked me to do some background projections for their set. I made this abstract film based on their music. Afterwards, I re-edited it, mixing elements of the show and it ended up being 35 minutes long. There's bits and pieces of experimentation throughout Noise. I hope one day they release it on DVD in the US.

Do you know why Cold Water was never released in the US?

Bad luck! Technically, there's no reason why it's not out. The problem was not music rights. It belongs to Universal. Now, it's in the Focus library, and those guys don't care. I suppose they're better people and if someone sends them an offer, they would consider it, but when it was Universal, they wouldn't return people's calls. It's a weird story. The film was distributed by a branch of a company in Europe called Polygram. After they bought the rights to it, the specialty branch shut down. It went back to the main company, who had no idea what it was. Then the company was swallowed up by Universal, who didn't even know what movies they were acquiring. The rights ended up with some guy in LA who doesn't care. It's ridiculous. I think at some point, they will lose the rights, but they don't want to give the rights back, they don't want to sell the film and they're not going to release it. Things were stuck in France at the same time, but now at least there's a French DVD.

It has played on the Sundance Channel in the US, but it's never come out on DVD here.

Once in a while, I've tried to get people at Universal to move, but nothing happens.

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