Maintaining his position as one of the most experimental “name” directors on the current scene, Mike Figgis has moved on from “Time-Code” to produce another film shot on Digital Betacam and employing improvisational acting techniques. However, the multi-image device of the earlier film is only occasionally on display here, as Figgis playfully explores the world of another group of filmmakers, far removed from the Los Angeles characters of “Timecode.” Though “Hotel” has brilliant moments, and an energetic first half, it falls away badly in the later stages, and, despite a very alluring international cast, will only attract a niche audience, though ancillary could compensate further down the track.
Pic opens with a very strange sequence featuring an uncredited John Malkovich arriving at the Hungaria Hotel, located on the Venice Lido, and dining with a group of hotel staff in what appears to be the basement. His place at the table is separated by prisonlike bars from the rest of the guests, but he is undeterred, though his conversation (“Is there a lot of cholesterol in cheese?”) is odd to say the least.
After this initial sequence, Malkovich drops out of the picture altogether, his presence never explained. Pic proper begins with the arrival of members of the cast and crew of a movie at the hotel. The director, Trent Stoken (Rhys Ifans), is a trendy vulgarian who seems unsuited to the project at hand — a film version of John Webster’s 17th-century revenge play “The Duchess of Malfi.”
Stoken assures his actors that the screenplay is “a corker — we’ve got a real tight Duchess of Malfi here,” and when one actor complains about the loss of poetry in the script, the response is that this will be a “fast-food McMalfi.”
The duchess is to be played by Stoken’s girlfriend (Saffron Burrows), with other roles taken by an international cast. One Italian actress complains about her lack of dialogue and her nude scenes (“I don’t want to be upstaged by my tits”) and an Australian actor (Jason Isaacs), clearly based on you-know-who, bows out of the lowly paid production when he gets a call about a starring role in a Ridley Scott film.
Stoken plans to shoot the film as a Dogma production (which means the actors will be badly lit, someone remarks), but location work in the Piazza San Marco is disrupted by crowds of intrigued tourists and by pigeons. A further interruption comes with the arrival of Charlee Boux (Salma Hayek), a star reporter for an entertainment TV program, who invades the set, firing ditzy questions at anyone in range. Hayek is amusing in a role that seems inspired by the one played by Geraldine Chaplin in “Nashville.”
These early scenes are bright and amusing, full of in-jokes for the movie literate and insights into the processes of this kind of runaway production. But just before the film’s midpoint, a mysterious assassin fires a bullet from a silenced gun into the back of Stoken during filming; assuming he’s taking a rest (he is, after all, an eccentric artist), the cast and crew leave him lying on the floor, only later realizing what’s happened. By that time he’s in a coma, seeing fragmentary images (beautiful use of the video camera here) of the people around him.
From this point on it’s as though a balloon has been pricked as the air seeps out of the film. Pic’s producer, Jonathan Danderfine (David Schwimmer) takes over the direction, but nothing as beautiful or as witty occurs in the second half of the film as did in the first, despite the strange arrival of a flamenco troupe, managed by, of all people, Burt Reynolds. A plot strand, seemingly inspired by Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom,” in which the hotel staff appears as vampires, counts for very little.
An end title (the copy that screened in Toronto lacked complete end credits) thanks the cast members for their participation in this “foolhardy venture,” and it’s much to the credit of the long list of actors and their improvisational skills that the film works as well as it does.
Apart from Ifans and Hayek, standouts are Julian Sands, as a failed British actor turned tour guide, and Schwimmer, as the scheming producer.
DV filming is, once again, significantly effective, with the use of a night vision lens producing some very eerie effects. Figgis plays around with the shape of the screen, using full letterbox for the sequences in which scenes from “The Duchess of Malfi” are shown. The music score composed by the filmmaker in collaboration with Anthony Marinelli is on the button.