Asia Argento looks like trouble just sitting there in the luxe waiting room at the offices of the international businessman-type played by Michael Madsen. Maybe it’s the way her wrap dress fits her lean curves (an oxymoron, but still), or the tattoo on the back of her neck, or those big brown eyes and the way that the dark circles under them make her look like she’s been up late doing something she shouldn’t but doesn’t regret. Within minutes she’s delving into the dirty deeds she did for Madsen’s Miles back when they were a couple and masturbating on his desk. A few scenes later, she’s stripped down to a bra, panties, heels, and a silenced pistol. But Olivier Assayas’ new-to-DVD Boarding Gate isn’t about objectifying Argento into some kind of Modesty Blaise-style action pin-up, at least not entirely.
French filmmaker Assayas has spent much of the past decade of his career putting glamorous women in one stripe of trouble or another, from Maggie Cheung’s Chinese actress adrift in Paris in 1996’s Irma Vep to Connie Nielsen’s statuesque exec caught up in international intrigue in 2004’s Demonlover. His interest seems to be less in getting them into it and out of it than watching how they deal with it, and are dealt with. Argento’s Sandra carries herself like a woman who’s got the world by the balls, but the fact remains that the world has balls and she doesn’t. Her big drug deal goes bad and she’s not quite ruthless enough to come out on top; her reconnection with Miles is calculated, but, as we learn, not calculated by her. When circumstances cause her to flee to Hong Kong, she is forced to trust strangers thrust upon her, with little language in common, while the people who have been playing her this far keep up the game. Boarding Gate is, in many ways, a hybrid of Irma Vep and Demonlover in its plotting and themes, in its semi-improvised feel, and in its seductive if slightly nonsensical view of the world as one big sexy airport novel. It’s also Assayas’ best film since Irma, not least because it has the compulsively watchable Argento in nearly every scene, causing trouble or in more trouble than she knows.
There’s nothing sexy about 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. There isn’t even anything remotely “sexy” in the description of the film: a Romanian drama about two women trying to procure an illegal abortion during the final years of the country’s repressive Communist regime. Talk about compulsively watchable, though. Director Cristian Mungiu approaches his story casually, in long, static takes, introducing students Otilla (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) as they putter around their dorm room. The privation and anxiety of the Ceaucescu years gets a similarly blasé introduction as Otilla buys black-market cigs and soap and frets over handing over her ID to a hotel clerk. If you didn’t know what it was about going in, you wouldn’t know what it was about for a good, long while.
Once they meet up with Mr. Beebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist, the stakes become very clear to all, and are even higher than Otilla, Gabita, or the viewer imagined. It’s here that Mungiu’s patience begins to pay off. Having slowly, carefully established the fears and dangers through the lengths to which the women are willing to go, each new turn of events ratchets up the tension onscreen and off. A raised voice amid the nervous murmurs carries the charge of a special-effects fireball, and those long, static takes build up the kind of slow-dawning dread no slick horror-flick jump-cuts ever could.
Not only are Otilla and Gabita prisoners of their situation and their society, they’re also prisoners of their relationships. It does not escape notice that Otilla is going to these extreme lengths to help a friend who is flighty, self-absorbed, and passive, and who nervously lies at the most inopportune times. She says that she knows Gabita would do the same for her, but the events of the single day during which the film is set are so wracking that it’s easy to doubt Gabita would come through; Otilla certainly begins to doubt her upper-crusty boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) would either. At one point during her frantic midnight errands, Otilla throws up in an alley. Is it stress, or is it the worst one can imagine in this situation? Mungiu will leave you wondering for hours, days, after the movie ends.