An arty Austrian take on “The Shining,” Jessia Hausner’s “Hotel” checks in as a five-star production wrapped round a one-star script. Flirting with genre conventions, but ending up all tease and no delivery, Hausner’s ambitious sophomore feature is a disappointment after her tough, darkly comic debut, “Lovely Rita.” Pic’s highly controlled look and exceptionally fine lensing may attract the curious, but word-of-mouth looks to be weak in the long run, signaling thin business beyond the fest circuit.
A young woman is being shown round the bowels of a hotel on her first day of employment as front-desk clerk. Her guide, Kros (Peter Strauss), is humorless, and the woman, Irene (Franziska Weisz), seems robotically compliant. Few staff actually live in the building; but Irene is not a local, so she lodges at the hotel and has plenty of time to walk the empty corridors of the Alpine hostelry alone.
The opening reels, as Irene complies with her superiors’ quasi-religious devotion to neatness and discipline, are undeniably intriguing. Hausner keeps her audience on starvation rations regarding any hard information — even the hotel’s exterior isn’t shown until the picture is almost over — but the few facts tossed the viewer’s way in the early stages seem to portend great things.
Irene’s predecessor as front-desk clerk was Eva Stein, a young woman who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. But her image lives on in a staff photo, and Irene finds Eva’s eyeglass case in the room she’s assigned. The investigation into the latter’s disappearance seems to be ongoing, to judge by scraps of conversation throughout the movie. And for all the viewer knows, Irene may even be a relative of Eva doing undercover research.
Meanwhile, Irene, neat and dandy in her red-and-white uniform, gradually starts to find her feet in the almost monastic environment. She gets permission to use the pool out of hours; goes to a local disco with her colleague, Petra (Birgit Minichmayr); has a kind of relationship with a guy, Erik (Christopher Schaerf), she meets there; and keeps in touch by phone with her sick mom.
Between all this, Irene spends considerable time walking the deserted corridors, lensed with geometrical rigor and neon-noir coolness by Martin Gschlacht, and given an almost living, breathing feel by the pic’s sound design. Hausner seems intent on creating some kind of empathy between her main character and her surroundings — swallowed up by pools of darkness inside, and confronted by an ominous, fairytale-like forest outside, where demons may lurk.
However, like the film itself, that idea runs into gridlock by the halfway point: Hausner doesn’t seem to realize that if you’re going to reinvent a genre like the psychodrama, you have to come up with more than just great visual design. By the point where the audience is on its knees for either a way into the movie, or a substantial development or twist to maintain interest, the helmer just keeps on being contrary.
Still, as in “Lovely Rita,” there’s a strain of very low-key comedy in the portrayal of the characters that helps to soften the pic’s unyielding surfaces. Newcomer Weiss, who had a supporting role in Ulrich Seidl’s “Dog Days,” packs a lot into her perf as the obsessively neat, emotionally reserved Irene, and Minichmayr, as her more relaxed colleague, provides contrast.
At the end of the day, though, “Hotel” is a good idea for a short which doesn’t go the distance as a feature, but Hausner remains a talent to watch.