Friday, February 24, 2012
Hôtel Monterey was one of Chantal Akerman's very first films, a completely soundless documentary about a New York City residence hotel populated mostly by old people. The film is formally minimal and even simple: one silent, (mostly) static shot after another of scenes from around the hotel, images of lobbies, elevators, corridors and rooms, sometimes with people moving about, sometimes entirely unpopulated. Akerman maintains a somewhat remote and aloof perspective, shooting people mostly from a distance, often in static poses where they sit facing the camera, sometimes even staring into the lens. At other times, Akerman seems to be eavesdropping, watching a woman's sleeping form from a discreet angle through a door that slowly swings closed as the camera sits still, stoically observing. In another shot, a pregnant woman sits in a chair, holding her large belly, and Akerman shoots her through a doorway, framed through the telescope of the narrow hallway and the door.
There's something faintly surreal about the film, despite Akerman's simple observational stance. The colors are bright and garish, from the sickly yellow of the walls in the corridors to the rusty red of the bedspreads in the rooms to the floral print curtains that hang from the windows. Akerman shoots these images so that light sources become hot and blindingly white, casting streaks and halos of pure white light along the walls, while the shadows are thick and black, grainy empty zones in which anything might be lurking. This high-contrast style renders the hotel ineffably spooky — eight years before The Shining, Akerman uses formally rigid compositions and lurid color schemes to render a hotel as a site of unsettling strangeness and vague mystery.
Often, Akerman holds her shots for a long period of time without anything happening or changing. The camera gazes at a forked corridor as, to one side, an elevator occasionally flickers to life in the darkness with a shadowy form entering or exiting, while the other hallway is mostly cut off from view by the angle of the shot, subtly and unnervingly suggesting that anything might be happening just out of view, just around that corner. The camera only starts moving towards the end of the film, but once it does, its slow tracking only adds to the impression of a silent, abstract horror movie that has no monster, no villain, only one creepy hallway and dark corner after another. At one point, the camera plods slowly down a shadowy corridor, tracking until it reaches a dark and grimy cul-de-sac by an exit sign, briefly pausing in the near-darkness against the wall, then backing away, slightly faster than it had approached, as though the camera was retreating, spooked. Akerman then repeats the movement, though this time a window is identifiable in the darkness at the end of the corridor, revealing a glimpse of the city lights and traffic outside, a hint of the outside world that otherwise barely touches this hermetic interior.
Akerman's style suggests not only the rigidity of Kubrick but also David Lynch's love of edging around dark corners, revealing the strangeness of ordinary reality. This film certainly prefigures the casual oddity of Lynch's work, the habit of taking prosaic locations and using the camera's probing gaze to make them portals into weirdness and unreality. Akerman's camera insistently tracks down the hotel's corridors, and statically examines its walls, its elevators with their blinking lights, its minimally decorated rooms and its wizened occupants. The people barely figure into the film, though, only occasionally serving as the focus of a shot or drifting through the shadows, hardly even visible. The hotel often seems eerily unpopulated, and it's the building that Akerman is really documenting rather than the people in it. The film is structured as a trip upwards through the hotel, starting in the lobby and then progressing upwards, floor by floor. It ends on the roof, where Akerman's camera drifts in a slow pan around the surrounding skyline or looks up at a sky so cloudy white that she's able to insert a few frames of white leader to partially obscure a cut.
Hôtel Monterey is an enthralling and original documentary, with no commentary, no sound at all, relying entirely on its evocative and mysterious images to communicate the sense of life in this hotel. The effect is disarmingly hypnotic and powerful.