In 2016 arthouse directors are checking us in to claustrophobic hellholes that inhabitants struggle to leave – the temporary home is de rigueur once more
Hotels are fucking bleak. Neverending corridors that mirror the monotony of life; claustrophobic rooms that may as well be cages for the soul; padlocked clothes hangers because humans are thieving creatures that can’t be trusted. And then you pay for the luxury.
Cinema’s latest trend has been to check into the mise-en-scène of hotels as voluntary prisons for the inconsolably lonely. Iconic movie hotels used to be for 1940s screwball sex comedies and Hitchcockian horrors. Kubrick famously lifted the the Overlook Hotel from the page to big screen in terrifying fashion. The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of Wes Anderson’s finest moments. But in 2016, an arthouse trio of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster are all at once reinterpreting artificial homes as the existential hellholes they really are.
At first glance, the Alps hotel of Youth is a 5-star spa paradise, a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign from the stress of modern life and folding your own bed sheets. Surrounded by snow-laden mountains and CGI-perfect weather, residents eat and sleep in a disgusting resort building, which for some reason has Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozalek in the house band. But on closer inspection, Sorrentino is satirising the cliché of writers locking themselves in hotel rooms. These residents are creatively crippled artists with death as their only deadline.
“If you stick a house through Google Translate, you get a hotel – the skeleton of human comforts without any of the humanity”
Michael Caine is a composer who’s hung up his baton. Harvey Keitel is a filmmaker unlikely to extend his IMDb page. Paul Dano is an actor rejecting fans who idolise his monster movies, not introspective indies. Rachel Weisz just wants somewhere private to cry. In Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, Toni Servillo copes with the weight of old age by swanning around Rome’s luscious landmarks and mourning the past. Caine just does circles in the lobby.
An inherently musical film, Youth is bombastic in its swirling motifs and rhythmic editing, juxtaposing ostentatious set-pieces with cutting one-liners. But it’s all confined to the hotel grounds. As such, the heated swimming pools and mud massages gradually feel compulsory, rather than pleasurable, and in the background lie elderly guests – including a couple no longer on speaking terms – on autopilot, waiting to die. Perhaps it’s actually a retirement home, designed to be out of reach, with the only exit being a leap off a tall enough balcony.
Charlie Kaufman takes a more muted approach in Anomalisa, a hilarious but deeply depressing stop-motion animation he wrote and co-directed with Duke Johnson. The hotel is called The Fregoli, named after a psychological condition for sufferers who believe they’re surrounded by the same person in numerous disguises. To Michael Stone, a puppet voiced by David Thewlis, the staff all sound alike (Tom Noonan plays all their parts) and their “nice weather we’re having” small talk is insincere, if not actually scripted.
Breaking the rules of conventional storytelling, Anomalisa explores the awkward gaps typically cut out of live-action cinema. Most of the first half is just Michael on his own, killing time in The Fregoli and craving human company. The film is knowingly absurd in making the audience watch a puppet urinate, shower, light a cigarette, test the ice machine, stare out the window, sigh, read the brochure, and all sorts of mundane activities painstakingly animated frame by frame, taking half a day for each second of footage. And yet we know what Michael really desires is someone to talk to. Puppets – they’re just like us, eh?
But there really is a human quality to Anomalisa, delivering the kind of pathos only possible with a stop-animated hotel. For instance, two of Kaufman’s best-known films, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, literally step into a character’s mind, and through abstract imagery more accurately depict the complexity of everyday anxiety than in any straightforward drama. Likewise, Anomalisa presents The Fregoli as Michael’s midlife crisis in architectural form: beige wallpaper, looping muzak, and unattainable strangers behind locked doors.
Michael is, to some extent, as self-aware as expected from someone selecting a hotel branch named after his mental illness. In the bathroom, he stares at the mirror, locking eyes with himself, then notices the cracks on his face, and realises he’s a puppet. He barely blinks. Married and with a child, he eagerly took a flight to Cincinnati to break from domestic rigmarole, but the hotel’s uniformity is a reminder the strings are still attached.
The catalyst of Anomalisa is when Michael sprints down the hallway because he’s fallen in love with another guest’s voice, but doesn’t know her room number. This sense of hotel-infused romantic desperation is developed by Yorgos Lanthimos into the life-or-death concept of The Lobster – a follow-up to Dogtooth and Alps with another deconstruction of mankind as helpless animals, but transforming a hotel into a human zoo. For this, the hotel requires no alterations.
In short, The Lobster sees Colin Farrell ordered to The Hotel whereby he has 45 days to find a partner, or else be turned into an animal of his choosing and released into the wild. On the first night, he’s handcuffed in a room that’s effectively a prison cell with a trouser press. And for a metaphor about societal pressures to get hitched, where better than a hotel? In what’s essentially a speed-dating event, The Hotel conveys self-inflicted man-made horrors, with the movie villains just sharply dressed hotel management doing their job.
“It was difficult to be in that hotel in real life,” John C. Reilly described filming on location. “Beautiful as it was, it felt like an asylum after a couple of weeks.” Lanthimos also admitted he binge-watched Channel 4’s The Hotel for research, which goes to show great artists suffer for their art.
Other relevant examples include last year’s Force Majeure, in which an avalanche traps a family in a ski resort and the relationship crumbles like snow; last month’s By the Sea places Brangelina next-door to a younger, sexually active couple, ensuring plenty of self-reflection and marital jealousy; and The Grand Budapest Hotel, ostensibly Ralph Fiennes prancing around a Wes Anderson set, is framed by an old guy in a deserted establishment wishing his friends were still alive.
Going further back, Lost in Translation wasn’t so much about the hotel, but about two Americans unable to speak the language in a foreign city. And interestingly, Sorrentino and Lanthimos are European directors who moved countries to shoot Youth and The Lobster in English, not their native tongue. Some have criticised both films for dialogue that occasionally sounds translated. This may be so. But like converting text into Google Translate and back, what returns is unique and poetically disconnected. If you stick a house through Google Translate, you get a hotel – the skeleton of human comforts without any of the humanity.
Either way, the setting in all these films is about isolation, on a physical and emotional level. In Youth, when Caine and Keitel stare off into the distance, they see a past, not a future. “When you’re young, everything seems close,” Keitel explains. “When you’re old, everything seems far away.” And life outside the hotel seems very far away indeed.