Entertainment

How Olivier Assayas' Unofficial "International Trilogy" Did the Impossible

Screened as a whole, The Metrograph's presentation of 'Clean,' 'Demonlover,' and 'Boarding Gate' reads like a blueprint for the all-consuming cave of multinational capital.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Mar 27 2017, 10:09pm

Lead image: Demonlover. All images courtesy of The Metrograph LLC.

Only as I step back out into Saturday night do I feel the denouement of French director Olivier Assayas' unofficial "International Trilogy," which I had spent the past six hours screening at Lower East Side film haunt, The Metrograph. The stillness that betrays death in 2004's Clean cold-calls down an empty stretch of Ludlow Street. A model's desultory gaze on a torn-up fashion ad beckons fulfillment at the cost of agency, the pharmacopornographic pact of 2002's Demonlover. My pocket-weight, which had been, for a quarter of a day, disallowed to disturb me, now drags like an anchor with its cut-off contact; the paradox of interconnectedness in 2007's Boarding Gate. Altogether, it makes me wish I were back inside my cinematic chrysalis, inside that bubble outside of everything, watching the films back-to-back all over again. I'd rather watch multinational capitalism subsume the world, as, over the course of three films, Assayas illustrates, than have to face it.

Olivier Assayas (L) in conversation with Greta Gerwig (R) following the screening of Clean. Image: Metrograph LLC

"Assayas' unofficial 'international' trilogy tracks the frictionless movement of bodies and capital (currency, culture, sex) across continents, through a sinister landscape of hotel rooms and business parks that are everywhere the same," is how The Metrograph bills it. But Assayas himself, live and in conversation with the actress and filmmaker Greta Gerwig following the 3:30PM screening of Clean, goes into little detail about the trilogy's 'unofficial' business. How Clean came about after his divorce from the film's star, Maggie Cheung; how Demonlover was his answer to a millennial cinema lacking the bite of DeLillo books; and how Boarding Gate just wanted to be a B-movie; are all more important than the films' critical theory, of which they've generated an abundance. Instead, Assayas and Gerwig gab about the then-real-life indie rock scene immortalized in Clean, about the peripheral importance of blocking a scene, and about "Kristen [Stewart] the person, not Kristen the movie star." (Stewart leads Personal Shopper, Assayas' latest film, in theaters now.) I get the impression that discussing the theoretical implications of his films bores Assayas; he'd rather say it on celluloid than into a cordless mic. "Filmmaking," he contends, "is all about freedom and the boundaries you create for yourself." Having to explain yourself later, I gather, isn't very liberating.

Maggie Cheung stars as Emily Wang in Clean.

What's interesting, then, is how each film deals with boundaries and/or the modern world's lack of them. Clean, for example, separates the world of movement from the world of stillness. When aging rocker Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) gets released from jail following the junkie death of her partner, Lee Hauser (James Johnston), she faces two worlds: one, as a singer-songwriter revered and reviled for her hard-living ways, and the other, as the single parent of an estranged, now fatherless, young son. For Emily, staying put signals death—both the death of her dreams and of Hauser, as a reliable heroin sale quickly demonstrates. Movement, on the other hand, means living, both in terms of road tripping and crossing continental lines in pursuit of life after losing the person who kept her in motion. But when her father-in-law Albrecht (played with striking tenderness by a grizzled Nick Nolte) arrives in Europe to settle Hauser's affairs, he presents our heroine the opportunity to reconnect with her son and renegotiate her own borders in the process. She can mother her child and remain a globe-trotting songstress, provided she kicks the thing that's been blurring her lines throughout the entire process: her drug addiction.

In Demonlover, however, the importance of lines is that they're all torn wide open. Lines of communication, lines of thinking, and even the lines between the digital and physical worlds are forcibly violated in the cautionary tale masquerading as a crypto-caper. Corporate double-agent Diane de Monx (Connie Nielsen) crosses company wires and double-crosses her coworkers in pursuit of a lucrative internet porn company portfolio. But as the world of hand-drawn hentai is ravaged by the emergence of 3D CGI animation, so, too, are Diane's devices by an even more ruthless network of independent power players. The narrative "glides from Paris to Tokyo to backwater Mexico to the American suburbs, all with the speed of a broadband signal," writes The Metrograph. As opposed to Clean's Emily Wang, Diane de Monx's comeuppance (and perhaps her salvation?) arrives when she is finally—and quite literally—tied down.

Asia Argento as Sandra in Boarding Gate.

Where Clean deals with setting boundaries and Demonlover with breaking them, Boarding Gate presents a world of boxes, bubbles, and cages of our own creation. It is a tale that pits those who survived the ontological shift ushered in by the new millennium against those who didn't, as "cliché of a bygone era" underworld magnate Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen) soon discovers. Following a visit from old girlfriend Sandra (an inimitable Asia Argento), his attempt to reignite their former flame consumes him like kindling but sets her off on a blaze of bullets, drugs, and contract killings all the way from Paris to Hong Kong. If Miles is a sheep in a wolf's sport jacket, the film is a Deleuzian hot-take, high on GHB and not wearing any panties. Of Boarding Gate, philosopher-critic Steven Shaviro writes, "[the film] presents the world of global capitalism as a loose ensemble of lateral connections among contiguous but separate spaces. [...] Some of the spaces through which Sandra passes are nearly empty, and others are filled with crowds. Some of them are run down, and some are luxurious. But none of them is home; none of them is a place where Sandra might be able to stop for a moment and take a breath—let alone a place where she might actually feel that she belongs." It exposes the simple, eviscerating fact that we now live in a world where our identities are determined by our cell phones, credit cards, and passports, and not the other way around.

Seen together, the three films tell the story of a world in transition—from one in which what was shared was private, to one where nothing could be private, to one where intimations of individuality reflect over the skins of customizable identity-bubbles that pass over each other like temporary Venn diagrams, but with more choke sex and cell phone interruptions (Boarding Gate, in fact, features watershed moments in both).

"Such is our postcinematic condition: the fantasies that used to be manufactured specifically by the movies can now be found more or less everywhere," writes Shaviro. "This is why Assayas, for all his daring, seems to be making films under a sort of constraint. In an age of ubiquitous recuperation, he cannot hope to display anything like the exuberance, caprice and freedom of invention of his predecessors in the French New Wave." But for six hours at The Metrograph, immersed in Assayas' worlds of fantasy, I escape the all-consuming fantasy of whatever it is we call the "real world" today. In a funny-backwards way, the experience gives me the hope that there just might be something that comes after multinational capitalism—the caveat being that the only one way to proceed is to continue plowing through. So, invest in a coat that will last you; learn how to grow your own food; start reading the classics; whatever it takes, do you. For what it's worth, which is no more or less than everything, I'll be at the movies.

Olivier Assayas' "International Trilogy" screened in full on March 11. Click here to learn more about The Metrograph.

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