'Occidental': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Hotel staff on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Political, racial and sexual tensions lie just below the surface of this genre-twisting comic thriller by French writer-director Neïl Beloufa, which screens in Berlin this week.

A downmarket Parisian hotel is the claustrophobic setting for this darkly comic chamber thriller from visual artist-turned-filmmaker Neïl Beloufa, which makes its international debut in the Forum section of the Berlinale this week. A visually and sonically striking ensemble piece that plays mischievous games with audience expectations, Occidental contains faint echoes of early Ozon or Almodovar, though it never quite delivers the political or emotional payoff seemingly promised by its fraught dramatic buildup.

With its tight running time and boxy aspect ratio, Occidental almost feels like a crisp TV production. The stagey hotel set also looks like an art installation, which is exactly what Beloufa used it for after the shoot. With an ending that jumps the shark into cryptic absurdity, this idiosyncratic deconstruction of genre norms will likely prove too left-field for mainstream theatrical interest. Even so, it is stylish and gripping enough to grab more festival play after Berlin, and should serve as a solid stepping stone toward more substantial screen projects.

As riots rock the streets of Paris, two handsome strangers check into the bridal suite of the Occidental hotel. The suave Giorgio (Paul Hamy) and his edgy companion Antonio (Idir Chender) claim to be a gay Italian couple, but hotel manager Diana (Anna Ivacheff) is not convinced, sensing some hidden agenda behind their furtive whispers, fluid accents and mysteriously empty suitcases. Could they be professional thieves, or even Islamist terrorists planning an atrocity? Meanwhile, the hotel staff are distracted by their other guests, a gang of boorish English drunks and an older American man with a beautiful young female partner.

While Diana calls the police to share her suspicions, junior staff member Khaled (Hamza Meziani) suffers recurring fainting fits and ditsy receptionist Rony (Louise Orry-Diquero) flirts with the new guests, her dreamy disembodied voiceover serving as unreliable narration throughout the drama. A comically tense intervention by a multiethnic trio of police officers proves inconclusive, leaving accusations of racial prejudice hanging in the air. Even so, the strangers are clearly not what they seem, and all these simmering latent antagonisms eventually explode into fiery violence and bizarre romantic revelations.

Shifting in tone from thriller to black comedy to old-fashioned boulevard farce, Occidental is archly stylized and non-naturalistic. The cars and phones are contemporary but the decor, clothes, hair and lurid screen credits are all self-consciously retro, invoking the cult movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The set is cramped and artificial, the performances mannered. Reproduction paintings on the hotel walls, mostly famous military battles, seem to comment wryly on the action. Brechtian alienation technique is all part of the mix.

As the title teasingly hints, Occidental was party conceived as an open-ended meditation on "western" values and the legacy of "imperial tourism." Beloufa certainly plays on some inflammatory current tropes and tensions, though his lack of firm conclusions leave him open to charges of shallow arty posturing. In purely stylistic terms, he proves skilled at creating suspense from minimal ingredients, with strong use of sound design and music, including an ominously throbbing electro-rock score by Gregoire Bourdeil and Alexandre Geindre which erupts into florid Morricone-esque melodrama during the film's torrid climax.

Production companies: Bad Manners, Le Fresnoy Studio National des Αrts Contemporains
Cast: Idir Chender, Anna Ivacheff, Paul Hamy, Louise Orry-Diquero, Hamza Meziani, Brahim Tekfa
Director, screenwriter: Neïl Beloufa
Producers: Jacques Dodart, Hugo Jeuffrault, Pierre Malachin
Cinematographer: Guillaume Le Grontec
Editor: Ermanno Corrado
Music: Gregoire Bourdeil, Alexandre Geindre
Production designer: Dan Perez.
Sound designer: Arno Ledoux

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales company: MPM Film, Paris

73 minutes