Sometimes you run into a film that calls out to you right away. From the poster and the short synopsis to the first couple of seconds of a trailer, every fiber in your body just screams this is a film you should not ignore. The matter becomes even more pressing when you run into them at a festival, since the future of these films is rarely assured. Mind you, there's a pretty big chance such occurrences end in disappointment, but not so this time. Hotel Poseidon was every bit as creative, imaginative, unsettling and elusive as I'd hoped it would be, which makes this one of the absolute best films I've seen in years.
Though this is Stefan Lernous' first feature film, it's certainly not his first foray into the arts. For more than 20 years he has fronted Abattoir Fermé, a professional theater ensemble that carved out a very peculiar niche for itself. Based on the confidence and fortitude that emanates from Hotel Poseidon it seems like a safe bet that the film is an extension of the work they perform on stage, though it's by no means a literal translation from theater to film. You just sense that Lernous is very comfortable with the world he paints on screen, as crazy and particular as it may appear from the outside.
Hotel Poseidon hits that sweet spot where genre and auteur meet. Its love for genre cinema is blatantly obvious, soaking in thriller, horror and mystery elements, giving them a strong surrealistic touch in passing. But this isn't core genre cinema. Lernous doesn't build his film on established clichés, he doesn't cut and paste his way to the finale, and he fails to settle for the expected. Instead, he subverts all these familiar elements to create something completely unique. This is a film that is hellbent on keeping you from settling down, works hard to avoid complacency and ultimately feels like it couldn't have been made by anybody else. Which is quite a feat for a director I had never even heard of before.
The plot (in so much that it isn't an excuse to create a sultry mini-universe where Lernous can introduce a wide variety of oddball characters) revolves around David, an introverted loner who inherited an incredibly kitsch, sea-themed hotel from his father. The hotel is in shambles and closed down for guests, but when a young girl coming knocking David it too weak-willed to refuse her. Even one guest is too much excitement for him, and he goes back to rest on his bed. When he wakes up the hotel is suddenly bustling with people who are planning a big party, much to the chagrin of David.
For a first-time effort, Hotel Poseidon looks exceptionally great. It's obvious that Lernous' experience in theater helped him out with the set design (very intricate) and lighting (extremely moody), it's also no surprise that the film unfolds entirely within the four walls of the hotel (no outdoor scenes here). But cinematography deals with camera work and editing too, tools that aren't usually part of theater, and both are far superior to anything I could've imagined. The camera trails David as if it had all the freedom in the world, the editing is sharp and tailored, especially during the dream sequences. Lernous alternates slow and languid scenes with more frenetic ones and builds up towards not one but two explosive finales. From start to finish, Hotel Poseidon is visual bliss.
The soundtrack fulfills a very similar function. At all times moody and atmospheric, adding to that dark and dirty vibe that permeates everything in Hotel Poseidon. The sound effects play their part in this too, exemplified by the grating noises of the elevator. But Lernous didn't seem content with giving the soundtrack a purely supporting role, dragging the music to the front whenever he feels like it, making it an integral part of the many absurdities that are layered throughout the film. From the hilarious performance of the skeleton man to the weirdly whispered end credits song, it becomes yet another means to keep the audience on their toes.
Somewhere in between the soundtrack and the performances we find some very juicy Flemish dialects. It's maybe an odd thing to single out, but they are used so deliberately that they become a crucial part of the experience. They hide a layer of dry comedy, add to the absurdity and clash with the Dutch characters ever so nicely. I don't know how well this will translate for people who won't be able to pick up on the nuances, but anyone familiar with the Flemish DNA (warts and all) is sure to draw a few good chuckles from it. Regardless, the actors do a superb job, with Tom Vermeir and Anneke Sluiters leading the pack and Dominique Van Malder, Kirsten Pieters and Gene Bervoets making the absolute best of their supporting roles.
Lernous' greatest trick is that he keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat to surprise his audience. The moment you think you begin to understand the film, and you feel yourself settling in, he pulls the rug from under your feet, serving you something so baffling and surprising that it'll leave you grappling for straws. And he does it with every cinematic tool at his disposal. From impossible to read characters, wildly bizarre conversations and odd songs to sudden tonal shifts and weird structural hiccups, Hotel Poseidon is a film that sizzles and sparkles with creativity.
And sure enough, you'll brain will be working overtime to find connections to other films. The sets may remind you of Marc Caro's work in Delicatessen, the overall feeling of bewilderment wasn't unlike the first time I watched Eraserhead and the Flemish raunchiness could've been lifted right out of Ex Drummer. You may even find a reduction of Cast Away here, but in the end it's nothing more than your brain fighting to make sense of it all, as Hotel Poseidon exists very much in a realm of its own.
Lernous combines the vigor and enthusiasm of a first-time director with the focus and confidence of someone who already knows every trick in the book. It's a rare combination that explains why Hotel Poseidon turned out the way it did. The film is a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them. This is mood cinema pur sang, hilariously original and executed to perfection. All that remains is the hope that this won't be Lernous' first and final film, it would be a loss for cinema.