Hotel  (2001)

Mike Figgis burst onto the Hollywood A-list scene in 1995 with the stunning Leaving Las Vegas, which got four Oscar nominations and one win.  He burst back off again in 2000 with Timecode, an aggressively noncommercial experiment in filmmaking technique which probably would have completely died of its own preciousness if not for a healthy dose of self-mockery.  Then in 2001, to cement the position he staked out for himself with Timecode, his followup was Hotel.  Which not only pursued further the no-budget techniques of using cheapass digital video and mostly improvised dialogue, but also is heavily self-referential... being centered on the production of a film-within-the-film done in the Dogme style.  It all takes place in Venice, Italy.

The film-within soon becomes a complete trainwreck.  With the characters discussing Dogme by name, it reads superficially as a satire on the pretentions of people like Lars “von” Trier.  But the style being ridiculed is so close to the style that we’re watching that it inevitably also reads as self-mockery... but what end this is supposed to point to is far from clear.  Does Figgis mean us to see his own film as a trainwreck?  Does he just mean to say “You and I are both in on the joke”?  One wonders why, if his critique applies to his own stuff, he bothered to film it at all.  Maybe it’s supposed to be some kinda Guestian deadpan comedy.  I just hope to hell he’s not trying to say “Lars von Trier is lame, now let me show you how to do it right”... because Trier has sometimes managed to give us impressive and memorable stories in that style, and as yet, Figgis has not.

Timecode was not a memorable story, but it was at least a tour de force of technique, in that it was filmed in a single long take from four separate points of view — all four being shown in split screen.  Hotel has no such bravura accomplishment to point to, and is far more loosely held together.  So if we’re going to be interested in watching this despite its dismal unlooped audio and BUTT-UGLY digital picture, it had better be for the story... because we are long past the point where pretentious technique will cut it.

Or... there had better be some B.

Whaddaya know, this movie’s got boobs, it’s got guns and fake blood, it’s got severed body parts, it’s got gratuitous lesbian action, it’s got evil conspiracy thugs in suits... fer chrissake, it’s got cannibals!  It’s even got some goofy fake medical science that would be right at home in a fifties schlocker.  Overall, there’s about as much stealth B as you can fit into the limitations of the zero-budget arthouse genre.  (Which does kinda rule out some things, such as rubber monsters.)  The thing is, though, the film satire is believable (though weak and obvious), but the idea of a posh hotel in Venice hiding a nest of cannibals is not.

But then, I guess you could say there’s a thematic resonance of sorts... preposterous cannibalism is not a bad metaphor for how, in this movie, Figgis is relating to Hollywood.

The film-within-a-film has some B-ness of its own, or acts as a sort of commentary on the verities of B, in that it’s based on The Duchess of Malfi, an Elizabethan play which is notorious for its heavy reliance on schlock and gruesomeness.

The strongest bit of the film, for me, is the ending.  On the surface it seems that something supernatural happened, but on a second level it just might be a shocking twist. But there’s no proof of an evil twist, nothing of the kind is spelled out.  It’s just minimally implied.  It does lend some added retroactive interest to the assorted chaos that happened before, as a good twist ought, but to me it seems rather little and late.

In conclusion: as straight art or entertainment, it’s hard to recommend this mess.  But it certainly scores high on “wtf?” factor, and there’s definitely some amusement in seeing the famous faces that pop up all over in minor roles, like Burt Reynolds and Lucy Liu.  And it just might give you a little frisson the next time you drink a glass of milk.

I guess one last thing that bears mentioning is the similarity between this and David Lynch’s Inland Empire, also shot on digital video and also featuring a film-within-a-film.  Mostly those parallels are along the lines of “What if Lynch sucked”, but it still kind of leaves me wondering if there was some cross-pollination here.  I mean, Lynch certainly is able to draw inspiration for good movies from less-than-good ones...  (Have I mentioned my theory that as a youngster he totally must have been influenced by Manos: The Hand Of Fate?  That damn thing is loaded with lynchianisms.)