One is never quite sure what Mike Figgis will do next. He has demonstrated his ability to deliver commercially successful films in the shape of Internal Affairs (1990) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), but never content to play it safe, he is one of the few British directors who is always willing to experiment, innovate and challenge. After his experiment with real-time multi-screen and Digital Video in Time Code (2000), Figgis has taken his experiments one step further in 2001 with Hotel, improvising the film as he was making it.
For Hotel, Figgis gathered a large ensemble of actors in Venice, put them up in a hotel with no star treatment, no costumes and no script. Based around a loose structure they were challenged as an ensemble come up with ideas and material and develop their own characters. At the end of each day they would gather and review what they had filmed on DV, building on it with new situations and characters as more star actors turned up on the location (John Malkovich, Burt Reynolds, Lucy Liu). It’s a very risky way to make a film and is certainly doomed to having no commercial appeal whatsoever, but this did not deter those involved and the results are actually much better than one would expect.
It is probably pointless to try and describe the plot, since there is not much here that makes a lot of sense. A group of actors have got together in Venice to make a Dogme version of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. The Hotel Hungaria where they are staying however, seems to be a hot-bed of intrigue and vice with cannibalistic staff luring unsuspecting guests into underground cells and other guests being lured into taking part in weird sex acts in darkened rooms. The director, Trent Stoken (Rhys Ifans) however, is the victim of a mysterious assassin who prowls the hotel, and when he falls into a coma, producer Jonathan Danderfire (David Schwimmer) takes over the directorial duties, turning a radical underground film into one more faithful to the original.
There is much to enjoy here. The actors are free, within certain constraints, to develop their own characters and some clearly relish the freedom offered by hand-held digital cameras to push ideas and characters to their limits. Some are better at this than others. Rhys Ifans delivers a wonderful full-blooded performance as the rude and obnoxious Trent Stoken, the director who wants to deliver an edgy and vibrant experimental arthouse version of a classical play – a "fast-food McMalfi" as it is described by the superbly droll Heathcote Williams. On the other hand Salma Hayek is just plain bad for most of the film while Saffron Burrows is marvellous in ‘Malfi’, but has no aptitude at all for improvisation, as the extras on this DVD make quite clear. The scenes shot for The Duchess of Malfi however are fantastic, bring the best out of the cast and generally work much better than the improvised material, which goes to show that there is no substitute for a good script.
The chief purpose of the film seems to be a discovery and exploration of the liberating influence of DV, with Figgis experimenting with many different film techniques. The film is mainly shot Dogme-style with some simultaneous synchronised takes, filming events 'live' with multiple cameras in different locations and showing them split-screen, but this is never used to the same extent as in Time Code. The Duchess of Malfi scenes are shot in deeply saturated colour and there are also a number of scenes shot in the dark using night-vision cameras. Overall, there is plenty going on here visually to keep the viewer interested.
The film is shot in various ratios, but mainly 2.35:1, and what we have here on DVD appears to be a direct digital copy of the original DV film – hence there are no artefacts, marks or glitches of any kind. That is not to say that what you get is reference quality picture. The picture occasionally suffers from the limits of DV shot under natural light – blurry and lacking definition in places with colours lacking strong tones. The DVD however gets a perfect 10 for picture quality because it simply couldn’t be any better at representing the original source.
The sound suffers from the same limitations of the source material. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is channelled mainly centre speaker – Dogme-style on-set mono sound recording – so it is occasionally muffled and the odd word gets rendered inaudible or lost in the mix as sounds and images interweave. The sound widens when the split-screen is used to try and keep each segment audible, although there is rarely dialogue in more than two sections at once, otherwise this would be impossible to follow. The musical score is well spread across the front speakers, but there is little or no use made of the rears. By and large though the sound is fine and a fair representation of the original material I would guess.
Documentary – Checking Out: Mike Figgis & Hotel
A good behind the scenes documentary showing how the cast and director got together and began thinking about what they wanted to do with the film. The scene of Burt Reynolds trying to grasp that he has no character, script or even a comprehensible situation is hilarious.
73 photos can be browsed in a four block frame. There is little here that is not used in the film itself.
27 Web shorts
These are a series of short clips between one and three minutes long. Spoof video diaries, hotel guided tours, outtakes, improvisations and various behind the scenes clips are all used to accustom the actors to improvising with a digital camera in their face. This is great stuff and a wonderful addition to the main film. Laugh out loud funny, it is one of the best extras I have seen on a DVD and genuinely enhancing to the main film.
In the end, because of the workshop, improvised nature of Hotel, it doesn’t add up to much as a traditional film, but as an experiment with the possibilities of Digital Video it brings out some wonderfully free and natural performances and some arresting visual experimentation. But if you are looking for a plot, story or even any logical coherence in a film, best stay well away from this.