Weekly Spotlight #5: Hotel (Hausner, 2004)

In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, as the Cannes Film Festival gets underway, we highlight a past feature from one of the filmmakers competing for this year’s Palme d’Or: Jessica Hausner.

Jessica Hausner’s Hotel competed in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes like several of her other films; this year marks her first time In Competition. Hotel is a film that will confirm anyone’s belief that hotels in remote locales are insanely creepy buildings, where mysteries continually pile up and no one is especially interested in solving them. It also taps into the isolation one feels to be “the new kid in town” in terms of employment, having to work especially hard to convince both your employer and your co-workers that you’re up to snuff professionally and socially. When you’re away from your loved ones and focusing all your energy on making a good impression, the experience can be a bit surreal. You’re left to your own devices and must face the world’s uncertainties without someone to guide you along, and sometimes you wonder whether anything you’re doing is working. Hausner wraps all these conflicting emotions and fugue states into a trim and eerie package that is mightily effective in prolonging your own sense of unease. What evils this particular hotel holds, and whether there is any danger there at all, are questions that (unsurprisingly) we must answer ourselves, much like our heroine Irene. All we know for certain is that the vibes it gives off are undoubtedly sinister in tone, and that several people who made contact with it (including Irene’s predecessor) vanished without a trace. After that, it’s up to us to make a final judgment call, and I think that’s the right creative decision on Hausner’s part. Reveal too much and all the fun is gone. She withholds just the right amount.

What I most commend about this endeavour is the production design and the cinematography, which both work in tandem. It seems as though Hausner stumbled upon some quaint hotel in the Alps and did her utmost to imbue it all kinds of dark and unsettling auras through lighting, camera placement and a heightened sense of spatial awareness. As much as we have a sense of the hotel’s rough layout, there are still so many questions about how it’s run, where certain corridors lead, and how sound travels through the building. Again, we can only imagine the answers; Hausner lets us read into her mise-en-scène as much (or as little) as we want to, which in turn makes the whole affair hard to shake. Whether it’s a Gothic fairy tale, an enigmatic murder mystery, or a cursed ghost story, Hotel succeeds in bringing a distinctive sense of menace behind every shadow and closed door, burrowing into the deepest realms of our subconscious and making us think twice about our next hotel booking, lest it be our last.