Christmas may traditionally offer a sickening excess of syrupy cinematic fare, but this year ’tis the season to be bewildered as much as jolly, with the the usual yuletide nonsense (Fred Claus, etc.) being met by a counterforce of the strange (the latter films without a reindeer in sight). No doubt sprawling indie oddities like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and even John August’s The Nines will attract more media attention, but it would be a mistake to overlook Brice Cauvin’s elliptical enigma Hotel Harabati – which, for all the absence of special effects and trans-dimensional fireworks to match its quirky vision, still proves no less impenetrable.
On their way to a holiday in Venice, dubbing actress Marion (Hlne Fillires) and unambitious architect Philippe (Laurent Lucas) have a brief encounter with a well-dressed, middle-aged man of Middle Eastern origin who claims to be from a place “like Venice but without tourists.” The man disappears, but leaves behind a briefcase whose scuffed label appears to read “Hotel Harabati”. Rather than hand the bag in, the couple takes it back to their rented apartment, to find it packed with foreign currency. On a whim, they cancel their trip to Venice, while conspiring to maintain to family and friends that they in fact went.
In the weeks that follow, the pair’s grip on reality slips, and their relationship quietly crumbles. Philippe grows increasingly paranoid about terrorism, neglects both work and family, and spends more and more time with his boyish new acquaintance Simon (Anthony Roth Costanzo) – while Marion, now pregnant, finds snaps of Venice in her returned photo reel, locks herself away in the deteriorating apartment with her two young sons, and eventually takes off unannounced with them, leaving Philippe with no idea how to find the family that he has allowed himself to lose. Perhaps the answer lies in Hotel Harabati…
Cauvin’s assured feature debut is a mystery falling somewhere between Dominik Mll’s Lemming (which also starred Lucas) and Michael Haneke’s Hidden. On the one hand, it is a surreal deconstruction of the modern bourgeois family, and on the other hand it is concerned with post-9/11 geopolitics and the prevailing ambivalence in French attitudes towards the Middle East and Islam in general. In the meantime, its many irrationalities elude anything like a pat resolution, so that in the end viewers are left as unsettled as the house-hunting protagonists (whose half-hearted quest to buy an apartment gives the film its French title, De Particulier Particulier, alluding to a private exchange of property).
While the understated indeterminacy of Hotel Harabati represents the height of filmmaking maturity, it would appear, ironically enough, that immaturity is the key theme holding all the film’s perplexities together. The opening scene shows Marion and Philippe playing a noisy game of chase while their own children (and Philippe’s mother, played by Anouk Aim) look on in disapproval. From that point on, everything the couple does seems to reflect their infantilised state.
Both Marion and Philippe seem endlessly to engage in childish games of lying. Marion is untidy, whimsical, has been left completely behind by her peers, and seems in her element only when playing with her children. Philippe is professionally and personally irresponsible, and when confronted with a crisis simply regresses to his putative Jewish roots (roots which, as his mother points out, barely exist). It takes someone else (someone who, it should be added, may well be merely an imaginary friend) to point out the obvious to him: “You’re like a child who doesn’t dare to say he misbehaved.”
In the end, Philippe will realise the error of his ways and try to bring his family back together again. It is a journey that will take him, neurotic Islamophobe that he is, right to the very heart of the place that he most fears – where in fact he will find the sort of idyllic paradise that only ever seems to exist in a holiday picture postcard. It is indeed “like Venice but without the tourists” – but whether he has finally attained something like adulthood, or merely escaped further into his and Marion’s collective fantasy world, is for the viewer to decide.