Hotel Monterey

Hotel Monterey ★★★★½

"[silence]"

Chantal Akerman's first feature Hotel Monterey was out to challenge and provoke her audience immediately. There's no questioning this auteur and her genius after having seen the brilliant narrative Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, the essential documentary News From Home, and the feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles.

Here, in a film throwing all convention out the window, her debut feature Hotel Monterey is without sound, without words, and without text. The entire picture, about 65 minutes long, is composed of long mostly unmoving takes of New York City's Hotel Monterey, a nondescript and slightly downtrodden place that's mostly reserved for the poorest class and overlooked members of 1972 urban America. People move about the building, in and out of the elevator, down the halls. In time, most of them disappear and the main protagonist is the building itself. Light and shadow become characters themselves, exposing or concealing at their whim. A drab and slightly dirty hotel is made to be alive at once, and eerily empty and quiet as well. In most shots, there is no one, or just the briefest glimpses.

With longtime cinematographer Babette Mangolte, Akerman went into this project with almost no planning, only the location and time preconceived. By filming for 15 straight hours and up one floor at a time, the two put together a film that is at times riveting in its deafening silence, and also a haunting minimalist spectacle. Michael Koresky explains more about what the women were looking to develop together:

In the second of her 1972 experiments, Akerman again wanted to draw viewers’ eyes to elements in the frame that they might not otherwise have considered….Through a succession of elegantly composed, silent shots—some tracking, some static—Akerman transforms a run-down Upper West Side single-room-occupancy hotel (where she had sometimes spent nights with a friend) into a site of contemplation and unconventional beauty….Akerman later explained that “the shots are exactly as long as I had the feeling of them inside myself”; about the overall conception, she said, “I want people to lose themselves in the frame and at the same time to be truly confronting the space.” The result is minimalist yet rich: the viewer, wandering these mostly vacant hallways, elevators, and bedrooms, grows hyperaware of her or his own physical presence. A hotel is a place meant to be occupied, yet this one is largely drained of visible people, so it often seems like a way station on the road to some netherworld.

Like some shots in Jeanne Dielman which last for minutes at a time with zero camera movement, you cannot help but let your eyes wander and eventually pour over every inch of the scene. An "experiment in duration" is what Koresky would call it, and those moments came to be defining features of her filmography. Hotel Monterey is a unique one though, because Akerman and Mangolte -- along with editor Geneviève Luciani in a triumvirate of visionary women -- employ a few clever visual tricks, distortions of patterns, and light and color illusions that are subtle yet jarring. Sometimes, you're simply not quite clear what you're looking at, until a door opens or a light flickers, and then you're oriented again. At first we stare like the unmoving camera, then suddenly there is a slow tracking shot down a corridor.

It requires great patience but with great reward. A film that is completely silent and reliant entirely on the images captured and what they evoke in your mind is as avant-garde as it gets. Challenging and artistically direct, Hotel Monterey is yet another mark for Akerman as one of cinema's greatest and boldest auteurs. The final shot, one which I won't spoil, crept up on me and brought goosebumps. Just incredibly brilliant. Chantal Akerman was 21 when she made this. What were you doing when you were 21?

The hotel is now a Days Inn. C'est la vie.

Added to Chantal Akerman ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Documentary Films.

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