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The hotel filmas opposed to the motel film, its shitkicking, sex-addicted cousinhas always been as thrilling as a complimentary continental breakfast. From Grand Hotel to Wim Wenders’ The Million Dollar Hotel and even Stephen Frears’ cunning Dirty Pretty Things, all hotel movies provide the same gentle diversions: the guest register as microcosm of the world, Upstairs, Downstairs platitudes, and maybe Walter Matthau getting locked out of his room.
Now comes the Washington premiere of Mike Figgis’ Hotel, a strenuous attempt to update the subgenre with cannibalism and a frenzy of digital effects. Figgis has shot in digital before, in 2000’s Timecode, which featured four linked shots running simultaneously on a screen split into quadrants. In Hotel, though, Figgis dives into the deep end of the auteur pool, brandishing serious camera and postproduction moves: pixelation, visible viewfinder frames, and sound distortions, all blended into a tequila sunrise of experimental-film and -video tropes. And whereas Timecode had virtuosic long takes, its narratives glossing on and rhyming with each other contrapuntally, Hotel settles quickly on one red-herring story: whether a film crew can finish its Dogma version of The Duchess of Malfi before the vampiric staff of their Venetian hotel can recruit or eat them.
Figgis intends his intrusive direction here as an obvious sendup of Dogma purity: Malfi is Denmark done by Hollywood, backed by a brutish, Harvey Weinstein-esque financier welded to his cell phone (George DiCenzo) and starring actors who peel off in the middle of shooting for a new Ridley Scott epic. As enfant terrible director Trent Stoken, Rhys Ifans devours frisée by the plateful, terrorizes his cast toward a fresh reading of the play, and shoots big scenes in the middle of St. Mark’s Plaza without first clearing the tourists. “If a pigeon shits in your mouth, use it!” he screams. The film’s producer, Jonathan Danderfine (David Schwimmer), cowers in Stoken’s shadow, emerging only to fend off the making-of documentary crew led by the vapid Charlee Boux (Salma Hayek) and to soothe Stoken by coaxing him to wolfish howlsa not-so-sly nod to a character in Malfi who feels himself becoming a werewolf. And John Webster’s original script has been pruned beyond bare to what the screenwriter (Christopher Fulford) calls “fast-food McMalfi that would be very easily digestible by both Hollywood stars and the public.”
By ascribing the disaster of this Malfi to ambition, ego, greed, and all the other healthy capitalist virtues, Figgis seems to be gesturing clumsily toward the difficulties of attaining authenticity even with ascetic means of production. It’s just that his own means of production keep getting in the waynot just the special effects, but his hands-off approach to the acting, allowing his superstar cast to improvise from his original conceit. The results: Stoken ends up paralyzed in an assassination attempt whose bullet trajectory would make the Warren Commission blush; a reporter (Lucy Liu) gets into a tedious catfight with Boux; and when Danderfine takes over for Stoken, he launches his Malfi toward Peter Greenaway Land, orchestrating one scene in which the Duchess (Saffron Burrows) mounts her lover (Max Beesley) with a dildo and then turns over after climaxing to immediately bear twins. (“Dogma means, in this case, ‘unwatchable,’” remarks a tour guide played by Julian Sands.)
But the trouble starts right from the opening credits, and it suggests a deeper poverty in Figgis’ skeptical vision of alternative cinema. After the sound of bone-rattling flamenco, we see Omar Jonnson (John Malkovich) check into the hotel (Venice’s Grand Hotel Hungaria Palace), whose manager (Danny Huston) trades with his underlings what have to be the most meaning-laden glances in a movie since Bela Lugosi hung up his fangs. Cut to Jonnson in a catacomb prison cell, now dining with said staff and other snotty Eurotrash, who sit at a table outside the cell and pass him what looks like carpaccio through the bars. Jonnson amuses them with fretful questions about cholesterol content and whether the meat is Italian or Spanish, and then Figgis’ lens, restless as a Handycam on Christmas morning, slides over to the buffet, where severed human legs and arms dangle above a gutted torso.
The scene sounds more shocking on paper than the actual sequence isthere’s something about the portentous pan, the obvious calculation, that blunts its visceral effect nearly to vanishing. Instead, you wonder at the realism of the corpse, a mode of viewing that Hotel almost imposes on you. By contrast, the early Dogma Malfi is compulsively watchable: tense, propulsive, and embodied with third-rail charge by Mark Strong (as the Duchess’ brother Ferdinand) and the ravishing Burrows. It makes you wish for a brief moment that Figgis had really put his shoulder behind the adaptation.
Schwimmer is also not bad as the shifty Danderfine, the callow obverse of his usual earnest neurotic. But Figgis seems primarily in conversation with his own gear, not the actors. Instead of building tension, he’s busy isolating the crackling burn of cigarettes on the soundtrack and force-feeding you innumerable close-ups of the cannibals in the Hungaria Palace’s pitch-black basement, their eyes glowing with a phosphorescent vacancy in Figgis’ night-vision camera. Meanwhile, granted maximum freedom, the cast gives back not much more than industrial-grade fetishismlactation pornography, long guns shoved up skirts, a doctor demonstrating an exit wound on his nurse’s bare back.
Of course, one might defend Hotel as a sort of Möbius strip, a statement about how visual culture devours itself, a horror film about our inability to be horrified anymore. But such analytic intelligence is absent from this project, supplanted by the smugness of TV actors working for scale to advertise their own transgressiveness and the archness of a director who lampoons without offering new insight. Hotel might be a step forward in mainstream cinematic experimentation, but the intrepid Figgis might just have a mocking, bourgeois sensibility unworthy of his own experiments. CP