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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003

Keeping it real is an experiment worth a check-in


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Mike Figgis
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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The problem with all "experimental" art -- be it film, music or literature -- is that its creators often don't bother to differentiate between a successful experiment and a piece of crap. It's the concept that matters, and results be damned.

News photo
Rhys Ifans hits the floor in "Hotel" (above). Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu in the same movie (below)
News photo

That's partly true of British director Mike Figgis' latest, "Hotel," a film that's not only experimental in its split-screen technique, but in its gestation as well.

"Hotel" is pretty much an improvised film: Figgis gathered together his cast, had a few bull sessions, hammered out a few basic ideas, and then let everyone go for it with the cameras running -- often on several scenes at the same time.

Be thankful for a few advantages inherent to the artform: Digital video tape is cheap, so Figgis could shoot endless hours of improv; while editing digitally allowed him to cull the bits that worked from those that fell flat. That's the key: Editing is anathema to many "experimentalists," who feel that their every utterance bears artistic importance. (J'accuse, The Boredoms . . . )

Here, you get the feeling that "Hotel" is only one of several possible mixes of the film, as characters drop in and out, plot lines are scattered like confetti. . . and then it doesn't end so much as stop. In all, it's a rambling, shambolic mess of a film, but -- as I've said before -- given the vast number of straight-line, fat-free stories we get these days, a bit of drunken swerving is no bad thing.

Figgis sets his film at the Hungaria Palace Hotel, a grand old building located on Lido Isle in Venice. Something feels a bit mysterious, sinister even, and it's not just the little discordant piano notes he drops in every time he cuts between scenes. The hotel staffers all wear conspiratorial grins and there's a Goth-looking maid (Valentina Cervi) whose gaze is positively fiendish. Then there's the question of the gnarly meat platter they serve to a guest (John Malkovich) who's concerned about his cholesterol count. Welcome to the Hotel Hungaria, where the only way out is on the menu . . .

Most of the hotel's guests are the cast and crew of a low-budget production of John Webster's 17th-century play "The Duchess Of Malfi," a bleak tale of incest, revenge and murder. The director is a raging, egotistical prick named Trent (Rhys Ifans in an over-the-top impersonation of Lars Von Trier), the kind of guy who will just turn red in the face and scream "Aaaarrrgh!" until he gets what he wants. His vision of "Malfi" is a punk, Dogma '95 film, shot live on the streets of Venice. He's constantly raving at his actors -- Saffron Burrows, Max Beesley and Jason Isaacs -- with such tactful advice as "I want to smell pussy! I want you to f*** her like a criminal!"

It's no small wonder that Trent is shot by a mysterious gunman. And it's no surprise that several people -- particularly the film's producer, Jonathan (David Schwimmer) -- are secretly pleased by this development. Throw in an obnoxious television journalist named Charlee Boux (Salma Hayek) doing a "making-of" documentary; her archrival, Kawika (Lucy Liu); a femme fatale named Claudia (Chiara Mastroianni), who brazenly seduces one of "Malfi' "s lead actresses (Valeria Golino); and cameos by Burt Reynolds and Julian Sands, and you're got a film dense with intrigue, like a season of "Twin Peaks" crammed into a mere two hours.

That feeling is reinforced by Figgis' quad-screen techniques, which tease you with four sequences, theoretically all occurring simultaneously. Do you watch comatose Trent, as actors move about him, not knowing he's been shot? The assassin, in bed, with a woman approaching him? The wife of "Malfi' "s financier seducing a business client in her hotel room? Or Claudia, blindfolding an Italian actress and tying her to a chair in the hotel's basement? Your pick, but be sure to follow all the threads . . .

The quad effect is used sparingly here, as a holdover from Figgis' previous film, "Time Code" (2000), which consisted of four cameras simultaneously shooting four sequences in real-time that all come together at the end. This film, starring Salma Hayek, Saffron Burrows and Holly Hunter, was a real breakthrough, both creatively and technically, and it's inexplicable that it has never opened in Japan. Do yourself a favor and track down the DVD.

Figgis, who soured on Hollywood after the success of "Leaving Las Vegas," has made a point of returning to the immediacy and freshness that he enjoyed when doing theater. His efforts to bring this to the movies have meant low budgets (hence, greater creative freedom), shooting light with hand-held digital video cameras and working with a tight circle of similarly committed actors.

"Hotel" isn't a perfect film, but then again, it's a lot better than most of the similarly bloody-minded Dogma films. Like a good jam session, "Hotel" has long stretches where everyone's reaching to find the groove, but when they do, it crystalizes perfectly. A bit more structure would have helped, but the "solos" by Ifans, Cervi and Burrows make this plenty watchable.

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