Cannibals in Venice and Other Unanswered Questions; Mike Figgis' "Hotel"
by Steve Erickson
Director Mike Figgis could have followed his 1995 breakthrough "Leaving Las Vegas" with more tales of glamorous losers. Instead, he's pursued an odd mix of experimentation and trend-hopping. "Hotel," made in 2001, proved to be commercial suicide. Unlike "Time Code," which was released by Sony, it took two years to find an American distributor (Innovation Film Group). Figgis' recent work might qualify as honorable failures if they didn't feel so much like the work of a slumming mainstream filmmaker. Apart from the return of the split screen from "Time Code," most of the visual ideas in "Hotel" come from Wong Kar-wai and the Dogme crew. (Its plot pays explicit homage to the latter.) Anything but dull, it's nevertheless so disjointed and pretentious that I kept wondering if it was a deliberate put-on. Any three-minute stretch could be chopped up and inserted into a sketch-comedy show as a parody of a European art film.
"Hotel" revolves around a film shoot in Venice. Led by director Trent Stoken (Rhys Ifans), the cast and crew are working on a Dogme adaptation of John Webster's Jacobean revenge tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi." (For what it's worth, the Dogme manifesto forbids period pieces.) Producer Jonathan Danderfine (David Schwimmer) would rather direct the film himself. When an assassin shoots Trent, landing him in a coma, Jonathan gets his way. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that the hotel is a hotspot for cannibals, who prey on its guests.
To his credit, Figgis doesn't try to make video look like film. His general avoidance of long shots shows he's aware of the medium's limited resolution. At best (usually in close-ups shot in well-lit interiors), the image is washed-out and yellowy; at worst, it's deliberately grainy and ugly. "Hotel" would make a great commercial for editing software. The scene in which life bustles around Trent, comatose on the floor after having just been shot, combines dissolves within dissolves within dissolves, blurred motion and bodies fragmented into pixels popping in and out of frame.
Figgis also uses frames within the frame: the "Duchess of Malfi" footage appears in a small 1.85 rectangle, while other portions appear in a TV-shaped box (bordered by a red square) in the center of the screen. "Time Code" juxtaposed 4 90-minute takes, allotting each one a corner. "Hotel" occasionally duplicates this look, but it uses split screens in a less schematic fashion, sometimes filling up 2/3rds of the frame or setting two side by side in the center. Some of the more sinister scenes were shot with a night vision lens, giving everything a green tinge and the actors' eyes an eerie glow.
With its palette of handheld camera movements, quick cuts and smeared colors, "Hotel" could hardly look more au courant. However, Figgis misses the substance behind his influences. Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" may have looked slapdash, but it was carefully scripted. For his part, Figgis restricted himself to a "story" credit on "Hotel," writing only a "poetic," erotic text for the maid to recite to Trent. Every other actor improvised his or her lines. It shows, and not in a positive way.
Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle's impressionistic views of Hong Kong also seem to be a major inspiration for the look of "Hotel," but Figgis never matches their lyricism. For all their visual flights of fancy, films like "Chung King Express" and "Fallen Angels" are grounded firmly in the experience of contemporary urban life, with its anonymity, speed and potential for chance encounters. In Wong's hands, the city itself becomes a character; for Figgis, the setting never transcends its role as an exotic backdrop.
Admittedly, the sheer weirdness quotient of "Hotel" is fun. In a bit that could have come from a Georges Bataille novel, a topless woman lies on a table and dips her breasts into milk glasses. "The Duchess of Malfi" depicts a woman sodomizing a man and then giving birth to twins. When Trent recovers from his coma, he bonds with his cast by howling at them. (They respond in kind.) The number of these scenes suggests that the film is a lark, but its tone remains too uneven for successful comedy. One is more likely to wonder "what the fuck's going on here?" than laugh. The parallels between "The Duchess of Malfi," the film crew's work and the violence at the hotel never cohere.
By shooting such melodramatic material in the Dogme style (and making overt reference to the manifesto), is Figgis critiquing its aspirations towards realism? Or does he just find it a good excuse to forego the expense of artificial lighting and sets? And what the hell did Salma Hayek, Burt Reynolds, John Malkovich, and Lucy Liu (all of whom pop up in small roles) see in this project? These questions will have to remain unanswered, but we must be thankful for small favors. If only all trainwrecks were as lively as "Hotel"!