A French lawyer gets involved with a voluptuous Lebanese chantoosie in Danielle Arbid’s wobbly but determined noir, “Beirut Hotel.” Designed to keep characters and auds off balance by evoking the often dangerous uncertainties of life in Lebanon, the pic boasts a good concept but requires significantly sharper editing and a finer hand with thesps to successfully play on the nation’s rep for mixing complications with contradictions. Arbid’s own rep, thanks to previous Directors’ Fortnight slots, could help “Beirut Hotel” secure a smattering of fest bookings.
From the start, visuals contribute to an atmosphere of unease that perhaps could be taken further than Arbid chooses. Following a singing gig, Zoha (Darine Hamze) meets friend Rabih (Karl Sarafidis) at a bar where she’s eyed by Mathieu (Charles Berling). She’s wary yet attracted, lingering in his hotel room after Rabih has left.
Mathieu is on his way to Syria to negotiate contracts for a French telecom company. Before departing, he’s visited by Abbas (Fadi Abi Samra), an acquaintance who helped him out of a sticky situation three years earlier. Now Abbas needs Mathieu to return the favor: He’s got information on Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri’s assassination and wants to sell what he knows to the French government for a visa out. Mathieu says he doesn’t have that kind of embassy contact, but Abbas is convinced he’s in danger and needs the visa to escape.
Mathieu finds himself followed by competing security services, one headed by Zoha’s uncle, while her separated husband, Hicham (Rodney El Haddad), is also on his tail. Zoha, meanwhile, moves between Beirut’s chic watering holes and Mathieu’s hotel bed, a woman used to living with the sensation that no one can ever completely negotiate the labyrinthine game of loyalties and betrayals that’s become a feature of Lebanon’s political and social landscape.
News reports of a kidnapping are woven into the story’s background, reinforcing the sense of a nation coming apart. Toward the pic’s end, a character unnecessarily verbalizes the impossibility of truly knowing Lebanon — a concept Arbid (“A Lost Man”) attempts to mirror in her plot, which keeps deliberately unclear not just whose side people are on, but how many sides there are.
The device is only marginally successful. Mathieu’s character needs filling out, and while Zoha is given more of a personality — sensual, conflicted, involved and yet marginalized — she’s only intermittently three-dimensional. Editing is a distinct problem, incapable of standing up to a multistrand narrative where suspicions and misconstrued signals are such an integral part of the equation.
Lensing captures some of Beirut’s contradictions, where glamorous rooftop parties uneasily coexist with crumbling Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods. Digital projection in Locarno practically eliminated what were likely warm tonalities, making the careful lighting hard-edged. Except for a few songs smoothly delivered by Hamze’s rich voice, music is clumsily inserted, especially a repetition of Sibelius’ “Valse triste.”