Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, June 20, 2008

Olivier Assayas - Super Genius

Thank god that at least there are a few Frenchmen, like Olivier Assayas, who get that life is beautiful even when (or especially when) it's drenched in blood. Assayas makes movies that move and feel like ambient techno music - glacial emotions and settings, rapid tempo stream of conscious flow editing and magnificent paranoid foley work: as characters walk around hallways there's a constant flow of parties, cash registers, and other sounds from all around - in short, the real noises of this crazy world. In attempting a futurist neo-realism, he shows us just how bizarre our lives have become. He makes it seem ironic that science fiction movies are built on sets when the real world is right now far more complex and cyber-delic than anything one singular human mind could e'er imagine. Assayas provides a link wherein even corporate work and air travel becomes sexual and dangerous.

His latest, BOARDING GATE, returns to the world of corporate espionage in catsuits that won him mixed reviews with DEMONLOVER (2002). Superstar Asia Argento is great here playing a cross between her strung-out exhibitionist in SCARLET DIVA and the role which helped make her an international sex symbol, the influential-but-little-seen cult film NEW ROSE HOTEL. Based on a short story by William Gibson and directed by Abel Ferrara, HOTEL was set in a dystopian future where international corporations had replaced government and everything from banking to boarding room negotiations were done via cameraphones!

Science fiction what? Released in 1998, NEW ROSE HOTEL was futuristic for about three hours. It starred Christopher Walken and Willem DaFoe as two corporate spies-for-hire who recruit Asia's duplicitous and irresistible prostitute to seduce and betray a married Japanese researcher. They find Argento at a hip bar where the DJ is playing Cat Power in all murky cool Bozan Bajeli reds. Assayas clearly loves NEW ROSE HOTEL or parts of it. The son of Jacques Remy, Assayas has captured the child's eye view of jet set privilege, being shuffled through futuristic airport terminals and off to weird meetings and culture shock shopping malls without hardly knowing why or how soon you will get to rest and have a coke.

Critics say that for all his innovations, Assayas is derivative, but that's hardly relevant; if he riffs on other's work, it's cool because he steals only from the very best. Using the template of Godard's ALPHAVILLE (modern business architecture and practices as science fiction) and the sexy late night with unlimited mini-bar expense account decadence of Ferrara's HOTEL and joining them together at the USB port where Argento's own SCARLET DIVA wanders in exile.

One thing Assayas does better than all the rest is the sense of emotionless futurism that comes from being drugged out on international flights. There's a bravado stretch of time in GATE where nothing happens except pure poetry in cinema, an extended montage of Asia on an overnight flight to Hong Kong - the tacky but beautiful television shows hawking the city you are landing in, seeming strange and alien after a bad nights sleep with the sound off on your airplane headphones; the weird intimacy that develops between passengers sleeping next to each other; Asia climbing over sleeping Chinese people to get back to her seat; waking up cuddled against the old man next to her and not feeling good or bad about it, grabbing a bottle of water off the stewardess's tray at what seems like the dead of night, but then opening the window and being blinded by sunlight. If you have seen DEMONLOVER you remember the opening with the water on the plane and this leads to a sense of overall paranoia which Assayas clearly loves playing with, exploiting for our mutual benefit. Most of all he has an eye for Asia Argento, perhaps the perfect queen of the Assayas universe (which she helped birth, after all, via HOTEL). Maggie Cheung and Connie Nielsen could only do so much with their catsuits and slinky stares; Asia is this sort of person, this cat woman espionage agent: like Assayas she has a famous filmmaker dad (Dario) and a penchant for "stealing" shots at airports for maximum free sci fi affect. And just like her character in GATE, Argento lives the life of a jet setting debauched intellectual artist forever maneuvering her way through the tangled web of vice and male desire for her own exhibitionist fun and profit! It's who she is... in real life, if that still existed.

And what is real life? you tell me... exactly.


  1. I'm glad to see you attribute a certain science fiction quality (as well as ambient electronic music) to Assayas' work. And, I'm always pleased to find other appreciators of his work, for I find more detractors than admirers. And, Argento is perfect in Boarding Gate.

    Small correction: Assayas is not the son of Jacques Demy; his father's name was Jacques Rémy.

  2. Ah, Remy Demy, my goddamn dyslexia. Thanks for that. Assayas RULES!

  3. I lived in India for two years, 07-10 (close enough), and prior to leaving I packaged all my dvd's into notebooks, and only then did I discover that I was an Olivier Assayas fanatic! I had Demonlover, Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, all movies that I had never connected in my head. I was fortunate enough to have seen Irma Vep in a theater on a big screen. I can't fly to another country without Irma Vep's arrival in France - Hit the ground running so you can stand perfectly still while everyone buzzes around you! - running through my head. Boarding Gate as well, for so many reasons. Michael Winterbottom's Area 46 hits a lot of Alphaville buttons, too. We got new passports right before departing for India, and about halfway through our commitment, we had done so much travel that we had to have pages added to them. Another great essay to find. Asia Argento is the end all. Thanks.