Notable Festivals: Venice
After a few years away from the big screen following the lackluster performance of his 2004 feature THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, director Wes Anderson returned in 2007 with two notable works: a feature film called THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and HOTEL CHEVALIER– a short narrative film written and self-financed by Anderson, intended to serve as an illuminating (but by no means necessary) prologue to his feature. Shot entirely on location in Paris’ Hotel Raphael, HOTEL CHEVALIER features Anderson’s RUSHMORE (1998) lead Jason Schwartzman, as well as first-time collaborator Natalie Portman.
Schwartzman plays Jack Whitman, his struggling novelist character from THE DARJEELING LIMITED, in a short vignette that finds him holed up in the eponymous Hotel Chevalier. When his cushy solitude is compromised by the sudden intrusion of his ex-lover (Portman), he battles with himself, oscillating between the resistance and the embrace of her womanly temptations. Deprived of any exposition, the audience is forced to gauge the nature of their obviously-complicated relationship using only the character’s terse, somewhat-cliched dialogue. The last time Schwartzman appeared in Anderson’s work, he was still an awkward, gangly kid, but in HOTEL CHEVALIER he has blossomed into an elegantly composed adult in full command of his emotions. He may not be as verbose as Max Fischer or any other character in the director’s contained universe, but with his impeccably-groomed mustache and habit of wearing a suit with no shoes, he’s a classical Anderson-ian creation. Portman is less so, in a very edgy performance that features the aggressive confidence of close-cropped hair and the exposed vulnerability of bruises pockmarking her body. Waris Ahluwalia, an Anderson company regular who made his debut in THE LIFE AQUATIC ZISSOU, also makes a brief appearance here as one of the hotel’s security guards.
HOTEL CHEVALIER’s status as a self-financed piece means that Anderson has no corporate overlords to appease, so naturally he employs his signature aesthetic to its fullest. His regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman returns, shooting the film in Anderson’s preferred anamorphic aspect ratio, which in the context of the confined hotel room location, causes the edges of the frame to warp considerably. While the visual presentation incorporates the highest-profile aspects of Anderson’s style (lateral dolly-based camera moves, whip pans, the yellow Futura font, the top-down hand action insert, and the slow-motion ending shot), HOTEL CHEVALIER also finds the director experimenting with subtle techniques that nonetheless leave a profound mark. For instance, Anderson uses several compositions as an occasion to play with the idea of negative space, subverting his audience’s expectations for balanced, symmetrical compositions by placing his subjects off-balance within the frame. For instance, one shot depicts Jack lying in bed watching television. The frame is composed looking straight-on towards the headboard– a very symmetrical shot. However, whereas we might expect him to then place Jack in the center of the bed and balance the frame, Anderson chooses to place him in the lower left corner and give the composition an unnatural amount of headroom. This conceit could be read as the visual manifestation of Jack’s character trying to find a place for himself within the meticulously-crafted world he’s built around him.
HOTEL CHEVALIER is curious within Anderson’s filmography as it sees the filmmaker indulging in the safety zone of his established aesthetic while also striking out from it in very bold ways. The hallmarks of Anderson’s style– eccentric manners of dress, a deliberately staged diorama-esque affectation, and a distinct and somewhat-kitschy Europhilic sensibility– run gleefully rampant, freed from studio expectations and audience-minded producers. This same freedom also allows Anderson to take risks that are at odds with his established conceits, which some critics might label as child-like or precious. Undercurrents of melancholy run throughout Anderson’s work, which he employs to subvert the “twee” aspects of his style with a profound emotional resonance. In that regard, the tragic subtext of HOTEL CHEVALIER is especially biting– he uses the complicated sexual mechanics of a broken relationship as well as the inherent vulnerability of nudity to explore ideas about regret, abuse, and missed opportunity. In this light, HOTEL CHEVALIER is arguably the most mature story Anderson has ever tackled.
Anderson reportedly found the experience of shooting HOTEL CHEVALIER to be invigorating. He likened the project to shooting a student film, alluding to that all-too-rare kind of filmmaking where the set becomes an incubator of creativity and expression rather than a factory producing a product for commercial consumption. HOTEL CHEVALIER premiered at the Venice Film Festival alongside THE DARJEELING LIMITED. When the feature was released in cinemas, however, HOTEL CHEVALIER did not accompany it. Instead, the short was distributed for free on iTunes (the conspicious shot of an iPod in the film suggests that Apple might have been involved from the project’s inception). Ironically, the short was much better received than THE DARJEELING LIMITED. By this point in Anderson’s career, there was a growing consensus that Anderson’s style was beginning to wear off its welcome and, as evidenced by HOTEL CHEVALIER, was better served in smaller, concentrated doses. As a prologue to THE DARJEELING LIMITED, HOTEL CHEVALIER is effective enough, but on its own, the short is a compelling foray into the complicated world of sexual relationships, as informed by Anderson’s own growing perspective as an international artist with a serious case of wanderlust.
HOTEL CHEVALIER is currently available via the Youtube embed above, as well as in high definition as a supplement on THE DARJEELING LIMITED Blu Ray issued by the Criterion Collection.
Written by: Wes Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman
Production Designer: Kris Marin
Edited by: Vincent Marchand