Orson Welles once wrote of Hollywood, "a genuine individual is an outright nuisance in a factory." No one knew better than Welles did just how scorned genuine individualism can be in Hollywood -- even in the most putatively independent of realms. But what the great man didn't always see was that there was, to paraphrase yet another movie lover, a genius to the system.
The tension between the individual and the system, between personal vision and professional industrialism is, in some ways, at the core of Mike Figgis' "Hotel," a feature he shot on digital video in 2001 that now is receiving its release in this country. A filmmaker of singularly variable talent, Figgis has directed a couple of Hollywood movies, the most entertaining being "Internal Affairs," the greatest being "Leaving Las Vegas," which won its star Nicolas Cage an Academy Award. A darkly romantic story about life and death at the bottom end of the bottle, the film suffers somewhat from Figgis' antediluvian ideas about women, but it's passionately felt and performed, and shows how good the director can be with actors when he wants.
After "Leaving Las Vegas" Figgis unleashed a couple of indie howlers and shot a fairly straight version of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie." With its fine lead performances, the film was the work of a director who was willing to let his actors play out a scene and didn't feel the need to compete with the screenplay for attention. Figgis has a weakness for overly flashy, distracting visuals. Unlike some of his British contemporaries such as Alan Parker and Tony Scott, he didn't start by directing commercials but nonetheless tends to sell the image too hard. That's as true of some early features such as "Stormy Monday" and "Liebestraum" as it is of the more recent "Timecode" and "Hotel," both of which were shot in digital video and are attempts at experimental narrative.
Set in Venice -- Italy, not Los Angeles -- "Hotel" tosses together more than 30 characters in a story centered on a film shoot. Soon after "Hotel" opens, a bullying director, Trent Stoken (Rhys Ifans, who played Hugh Grant's roommate in "Notting Hill"), aided and abetted by his cast and crew, lays siege to a gloriously flamboyant warren called the Hotel Hungaria. As the filmmakers run through their paces -- they're shooting a Dogme adaptation of the Jacobean drama, "The Duchess of Malfi" -- the wait staff (Chiara Mastroianni, Danny Huston and Julian Sands) attends to their needs. Although upstairs the staff is strictly Old World deferential, downstairs it's as New World wild as a Roger Corman cheapie, given to feasting on human flesh washed down, presumably, with a nice Chianti.
In this hotel, body parts hang from the basement ceiling like cured hams as hams of a different sort frolic elsewhere. A veteran of other Figgis follies, Sands wiggles his tongue like Gene Simmons, while Huston and Mastroianni play Eurotrash backup. Salma Hayek impersonates a TV personality who doesn't know that the author of "The Duchess of Malfi" is as brain dead as she is. David Schwimmer tries to look serious, Valeria Golino goes for vampy and Lucy Liu breezes through, perhaps because she was vacationing in Italy and thought "why not?" when she should have been asking "why?" What John Malkovich and Burt Reynolds are doing is unclear, although like the rest of the cast they may have thought they were making art.
Figgis certainly was after something different, but like "Timecode," in which four linked stories unwind in separate panels, "Hotel" proves to be a fundamentally insipid bid at experimental narrative. Much of the dialogue sounds improvised, scattershot and vague, although the actors performing "The Duchess of Malfi" (notably Saffron Burrows, Mark Strong and Max Beesley) are persuasive enough to make you wish Figgis had concentrated on the classic text. You can understand why Figgis seems to have abandoned factory filmmaking in favor of productions such as "Timecode" and "Hotel," but the problem is there's nothing new in his formal noodling and nothing remotely interesting about how he puts his story fragments into play with one another. Deconstructing narrative is fine, but even a genuine individual can't make something out of nothing.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Full-frontal nudity, sexual suggestion, adult language, cannibalism (phony)
Rhys Ifans...Trent Stoken
David Schwimmer...Jonathan Danderfine
Salma Hayek...Charlee Boux
Saffron Burrows...the duchess,
Moonstone Entertainment, Inc. presents a United Kingdom/Italy Co-Production, co-produced by Hotel Productions Limited and Catteleya SrL, a Red Mullet Film released by Moonstone Entertainment. Director Mike Figgis. Story Mike Figgis. Producers Annie Stewart, Mike Figgis, Etchie Stroh. Music Mike Figgis, Anthony Marinelli. "The Duchess of Malfi" by John Webster. Adaptation by Heathcote Williams. Director of photography Patrick Alexander Stewart. Costume designer Catherine Buyse Dian. Casting director Celestia Fox. Production designer Franco Fumagalli. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
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