Women Resisting Commodification – Asia Argento and Gemma Arterton

I’ve been building up quite a viewing backlog of movies to consider writing up, some of which will inevitably slip through the cracks unrecorded. Today’s selection covers two thrillers in which the female leads portray or are subjected to behavioural extremes. Both central conflicts involve the protagonist’s assertion of their own identity and choices in opposition to people who would reduce them to commodities.

Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007) seems at first to be all about Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen), a seedy middle-aged recently-divorced American businessman based in Paris who has decided (against the wishes of his business partner André [Alex Descas]) to sell out his shares in the company to his dodgy debtors and retire. On his last day in the office he receives a visit from Sandra (Asia Argento), a woman twenty years his junior with whom he shares a complicated and messed up past. Sandra used to carry out corporate espionage for Miles off-the-books, sleeping with his business contacts and/or rivals and passing on the details – not just about their corporate activities, but also exactly what she got up to with them. For much of this period she was also in a complex S&M relationship with Miles, an uninhibited wild woman who willingly submitted to doing whatever he told her to do. Both their business and personal relationships came to a close a couple of months before his divorce, but while Sandra appears to be looking simply for closure, Miles clearly thinks that he’ll be able to take up where they left off.

Since leaving Miles, Sandra has been working for a Chinese import business run by married couple Lester (Carl Ng) and Sue Wang (Kelly Lin). She has also been supplementing her income by smuggling drugs inside their furniture shipments in collaboration with her friend and fellow employee Lisa (Joana Preiss). Planning on moving to Hong Kong and buying a nightclub after one final transaction, the drug deal goes sour when her buyer turns out to be an undercover narcotics agent – but fortunately her boss Lester, who turns out to also be her lover, has followed her and helps both women to escape.

The following evening Sandra turns up at Miles’ apartment, nominally to return her keys, but the visit turns into an extended dissection of their past – including a discussion of the incident which triggered her decision to end their relationship, a nasty non-consensual situation with a group of businessmen which Miles could have prevented. Despite the nature of their conversation, Miles seems to view the whole encounter as simply a prelude to the resumption of their relationship. Sandra’s signals are considerably more mixed than he’s willing to acknowledge, but as the scene plays out it really feels as if there’s a chance that Sandra will fall back into how things were. Miles is laughing and in control of the situation, even after she pulls out the handcuffs. Sandra is erratic and nervy, reverse-straddling him in her underwear while pulling a belt tight around his neck before flitting away again. And then she shoots him in the head.

It turns out that Lester has enlisted her aid to carry out a contract killing. After cleaning up behind her and visiting a nightclub with Lisa to establish an alibi, Lester makes arrangements to get them both out of the country to Hong Kong on separate flights, using fake passports and taking only the bare minimum amount of cash to reach their rendezvous point. With all evidence of their passage being destroyed along the way, Sandra panics when she reaches her destination and finds herself locked in a room with Lisa’s executed corpse. Pursued by the mysterious figure of Kay (Kim Gordon), Sandra seeks help from Sue to contact Lester – but Sue is aware of their affair and Sandra becomes uncertain whether she can trust either of them.

Boarding Gate is not at all a conventional thriller. Where most thrillers place the emphasis on their convoluted plots and action set-pieces, Assayas’ film is far more concerned with character, depicting complex people with uncertain motivations which are never revealed in pat speeches. Sandra becomes the viewpoint character who is experiencing a thriller plot from her limited perspective as a pawn within the scenario, trying to work out what’s going on and why through her observation of other characters who are never up-front about their own motivations or actions. Although Sandra, and by extension the audience, does eventually find out who set the whole plot into motion, Sandra’s reaction to the discovery and the reason for her chosen response is never made clear – the audience is left to come to their own conclusions based solely on her facial expressions.

Asia Argento’s performance is absolutely central to the film and is the primary reason to watch it. Argento is a bold performer who has proven herself willing to depict all sorts of extremes right from the beginning of her acting career – including the portrayal of a rape victim in The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), which was directed (controversially) by her father, famed horror director Dario Argento. (Asia later branched out into writing and directing with Scarlet Diva (2000), a semi-autobiographical film which includes a fictional depiction of her encounter with Harvey Weinstein – two more feature films and multiple shorts were to follow.) Assayas tends to take a loose attitude to his scripts, seeing them as providing a framework within which the actors can workshop their scenes and come up with their own innovations. The two extended scenes between Asia Argento and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) generate some surprising choices from both performers – and although my assumption was that all of the more extreme choices came from Argento, apparently Madsen made a number of suggestions which put his character into a worse light.

Carl Ng (New Police Story) and Kelly Lin (Mad Detective) both provide solid, nuanced performances in significant supporting roles – although of the two, Lin has better material to work with and thus has the opportunity to display a greater complexity. The most unexpected performer was Kim Gordon, bass guitarist/vocalist for Sonic Youth, who had contributed to the soundtracks for the earlier Assayas films Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002). Here she portrays a mysterious cog in the wheels of the plot who has some sort of connection to the knock-off clothing brand industry, possibly a reference to her X-Girl line of skater girl clothing which she sold off to a Japanese company at the end of the 1990s. Taking her place on soundtrack duties is Brian Eno, whose score completely failed to leave any impression on me – so much so that I didn’t even consciously register that there was a score, which I will charitably ascribe to a successful realisation of his concept of ambient music as an ignorable background feature.

It’s difficult to say whether or not I’d recommend Boarding Gate as a viewing experience – because of the way in which it’s constructed, its refusal to act like a normal thriller runs the risk of alienating an audience in search of a satisfying thriller plot. But if you’re after a compelling central performance from a fearless actress who enjoys exploring dark and conflicted characters, Asia Argento delivers the goods.

J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) is a tense three-handed noir thriller about the abduction and ransom of a young woman (Gemma Arterton) by two ex-cons, junior partner Danny (Martin Compston) and the more experienced Vic (Eddie Marsan). Opening with a clinical focus on the details of her efficient abduction, the director doesn’t shy away from the terror she experiences as she’s stripped, dressed in new clothing and cuffed to a bed. It’s an experience which is uncomfortable to watch (as it should be) and potentially triggering – but its discomfort is a vital precursor to what follows. In order to explain what makes this movie worth watching and why it isn’t just another throwaway movie about terrorising women, I’ll need to give away some plot revelations which pop up around the 30-45 minute mark – which might seem a strange thing to say given how much of the plot of Boarding Gate I’ve revealed, but if you’re already planning on watching The Disappearance of Alice Creed then I’d recommend going into it unspoiled.

Still with me? The first revelation comes when Alice uses her toilet break to turn the tables on Danny and take his gun. Panicked, he begs her not to shoot him and pulls off his mask, leading her to identify him as… her boyfriend! Danny tells her that this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. Despite coming from a wealthy family, Alice’s father has cut her off from any financial support and she has been making her own way in the world – living comfortably but reliant on unsatisfying ongoing employment. Danny hooked up with her after getting out of prison and, after Vic approached him with the kidnapping scheme, volunteered her as a suitable target. He hasn’t revealed his relationship with her to Vic, planning (apparently) to trick him out of the ransom money and run off with Alice to live wealthily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Alice is not particularly impressed with his plan – particularly the part where she knew nothing about it – but appears to be willing to go along with him (although it’s not like she has any better options).

After frantically hiding the evidence of their fracas before Vic’s return, the next big revelation comes when Vic and Danny lock lips. It seems that Vic and Danny became more than just cellmates during their time in prison. After Danny’s release, Vic planned the perfect kidnapping job which would allow him and Danny to retire and live the good life in some sun-drenched vacation resort. Vic is devoted to Danny and has no idea of his prior connection to Alice – but now that all of their cards have been laid out for the audience, Danny’s double game becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, spawning further suspicions and complicating actions from all three parties. The last half of the movie sees everything beginning to unravel, leaving everybody (including Danny) questioning his ultimate loyalties and casting doubt on exactly how the titular disappearance of Alice Creed (a title which only appears at the end of the movie) will be resolved.

Martin Compston (Monarch of the Glen) occupies the pivotal role as Danny, successfully navigating the twists and turns of plot as the details of his character unfold, revealing different facets of personality which combine to form a coherent whole and still leaving the viewer guessing as to whether his primary loyalty is to Alice, Vic or himself. Eddie Marsan is fresh off of playing Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), putting in a solid performance as the quintessential calm and collected hard-man who starts to come unstrung as he begins to doubt the loyalty of the love of his life. But Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), despite having less screen time and less opportunity to display any personal agency, fully grasps every opportunity she’s given and truly earns her place at the top of the bill as the deceptively cowed (but always thinking and planning) Alice. Despite spending much of the film chained to railings and/or wearing a ball gag – even insisting on remaining handcuffed during breaks in filming – Arterton’s performance transcends her character’s constraints and earns her place as the only character named in the title.

J Blakeson’s sparse CV has seen him alternating between writing and directing. Occupying both chairs for his feature debut with The Disappearance of Alice Creed, he recently returned to directing his own scripts with I Care a Lot (2020), a black comedy starring Rosamund Pike which has attracted a lot of positive attention for its focus on legal guardians who exploit their position to rip off the elderly. If it’s anywhere near the quality of The Disappearance of Alice Creed, then it will be well worth seeking out.

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