Friday, November 15, 2019

The Romanians: Luxury Hotel

For filmmakers, the advantages of living through a real-life dystopia include the highly cinematic locations the regimes leave behind. Of course, for Dan Pita, there was no up-side when he was banned from filmmaking, because his 1983 film Sand Cliffs sufficiently perturbed Ceausescu. About a decade later, he filmed this weird surreal dystopian parable in the dictator’s former palace (now the parliament building). Once again, a sinister and capricious “boss” rules over the exploited workers in Pita’s Luxury Hotel, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians:30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

Alex is an earnest plugger, who thinks he has arrived when he is appointed manager of the Hotel’s flagship restaurant, but as soon as he tries to make improvements, the “boss” slaps him down. Of course, that suits his chief rival and most of the wait staff just fine. Even though he is popular with the patrons (who could well be the surviving ruling class in this ambiguous dystopia), Alex is soon transferred to the Hotel’s warehouse. However, Alex is a restaurant manager at heart. He will petition the Boss and generally drive his former employees to distraction in his efforts to regain his position.

Meanwhile, there are hints of a civil war going on outside and perhaps even inside the hotel. There could very well be a power struggle going on. We never get a good look at the Boss, but he might be a succession of figureheads, somewhat like Number 2 in The Prisoner. Yet, nobody seems to be aware of any of these wider conflicts, except Marta, the privileged femme fatale who makes no secret of her interest in Alex.

The world of Luxury Hotel shares common elements with Late August at the Hotel Ozone and Snowpiercer, but it is superior to both of those films. Frankly, its vision of class conflict within the paranoid surveillance state is not particularly ground-breaking, but the visuals are quite striking. The decaying but still ostentatious palace is indeed quite a sight to behold, which Pita and his cinematographer, Calin Ghibu, fully capitalize on. You truly couldn’t create sets like this.

Valentin Popescu is weirdly intense and standoffish as Alex. He is the sort of guileless, politically tone-deaf naïf that fare poorly in police states. His anger management issues do not help either. However, Stefan Iordache largely upstages and out-shines him as his Machiavellian nemesis. He is a great villain, but Lamia Beligan also plays Marta as quite the sultry wild card.

Luxury Hotel could have probably only been produced during the immediate post-Ceausescu aftermath, when the palace was available, in all its faded grandeur. It is definitely spectacle, but serious, distinctively pointed spectacle. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian social satire, Luxury Hotel screens tomorrow (11/16) and Thursday (11/21), as part of the Romanians series, now underway at Film Forum.