None of us are alike in how we view the world. Politics and religions aside, the fundamental elements in acknowledging the information given to you lie in what the brain is able to comprehend. One of my favorite directors, David Lynch, knows how to manipulate the viewer’s senses by making them understand what their character is going through rather than the blanketed truth of third-person story occurrences. Knowing someone’s mental state can help the audience justify actions, no matter how absurd or cryptic the on-screen art displayed gets. I think this is where Belgian director Stefan Lernous is coming from with his debut film Hotel Poseidon.
Opening with a spiral of chaotic sounds, sights, fantastic cinematography, and set design, the main title design is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Only coming in second place to last year’s Precarious. The spinning camera and opening shots are revealing when all is said and done, previewing the dizzying events of the odyssey Hotel Poseidon is about to impose.
Waking to the sound of his neighbor enjoying pornography through the thin hotel walls, we meet our protagonist, Dave (Tom Vermeir). Dave is a pasty-faced, cracked-glasses-wearing man living in the most deplorable conditions. He drinks brown water from the tap, filling a dirty glass. His walls are grimy and molding. His clothes are filthy, and so is he. He fights with the neighbor about keeping it down. The neighbor monologues with a perfectly respectable answer: If he didn’t want neighbors in this empty hotel, why did he choose a room next to one occupied by another tenant?
The idea lingers in the forefront of your mind as you begin to theorize what Hotel Poseidon is going for here. The scene is depressing, and you quickly find yourself judging and pitying the man. Is Dave afraid of death or dying alone? Does he have dependence issues? The answer to all of these is an overwhelming yes and allows Dave to live like a zombie trying to pass himself off as a living person. Dave seems so afraid to die, yet he may never have really lived either.
To present the condition of the hotel as “a fixer-upper” undermines the true glory of the hotel as a metaphor for Dave’s life. It’s non-functional. And, without an obtuse knowledge of the hotel’s existence, it seems no one would know about it at all. Or at least in how the hotel is presented to the audience. Lernous’ vision of Dave’s reality is surreal, similar to 2014’s The Voices, where Ryan Reynolds’ character sees two distinctly different realities as long as he takes his medication. One appears bright and shiny, and the other appears as bleak as the Hotel Poseidon.
Nora (Anneke Sluiters) is unlike anyone Dave has met. Most of his hotel dregs are sullen or indifferent, inhabiting the space as a suitable halfway house, but to what is unclear. Nora arrives and immediately discovers the body of Dave’s aunt Lucy lying dead in a hospital bed in the hallway. The death of his aunt proves problematic for Dave on many levels. For starters, he was supposed to be taking care of her, but also her pension checks paid for Hotel Poseidon’s mortgage. Without those checks, Dave finds anxiety in knowing he’ll have to face the consequence of his mother’s fury (Tania Van der Sanden).
There seems to be enough to suggest a Norman Bates comparison right off the bat. He runs a hotel no one stays in, he has mommy issues, and he even has an old woman’s dead body just lying around. Beyond those common components, Dave and Norman share nothing but introversion, and I’d argue Norman to be less so than Dave who can’t even fix a cup of coffee for his guest without nearly lighting the lobby on fire. His aunt’s passing brings Dave’s father’s death into the forefront of his mind and Dave’s psyche begins to blend the past and present.
As the film begins introducing characters like Dave’s prostitute girlfriend (Ruth Becquart), morticians Amy (Tine Van den Wyngaert) and Henk (Louis van der Wall), and entrepreneur Jacki (Dominique Van Malder), you start getting a very Twin Peaks inspired vibe. There’s sleaze and opportunity, and these people charmingly make the most of it. When the barroom becomes a concert area further into the film, similar to The Bang Bang Bar, it cements it. Especially having the outline of a man standing in front of the stage with a very David Lynch styled haircut and the film’s own uniquely tiled floor that takes the pattern of the black lodge and seemingly combines it with the rug in The Overlook.
With the meeting of the morticians, I started to figure out the film’s strangeness, particularly the aesthetic concerning the pale faces and the creepy effect of one of the morticians appearing as if separated from the other. Hotel Poseidon’s makeup effects help present the nuance of this greyish meandering existence. The people in the hotel all have the same morbidly gothic look that mixes Tim Burton characters with the zombies in Carnival of Souls. All except Nora or any occupant that ever stayed in room five. While her complexion is pale, her occupancy stirs something within Dave. The concurrence of her arrival with his aunt Lucy’s death proves to be too much for him to handle.
When Henk peers out from behind Amy, he’s only acknowledged by Dave. This continued with many character situations, and I started to see what was happening. The hotel is his father’s tomb, and his depression has him locked inside it. If Amy is the funeral home director trying to earn Dave’s business with Lucy, Henk could be the vesper of the man who sold his family his father’s casket. This duality isn’t always apparent. By the end of the scene, it appears as though Amy and Henk are speaking to each other, showing the past is informing the present.
The events that follow in Hotel Poseidon are messy because we’re dealing with a multitude of thematic parallels outside of a linear narrative. The story is one of psychological monotony, and the limbo individuals carve for themselves in grief and depression. The hotel’s guests are like the ghosts of better days, analogous to The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, at times inhabiting the same timeline at the exact moment. Dave takes the stories, and the moments he shares with them, but we can never tell if he’s actually met these people as they passed through the doors of the hotel or they’re trapped here in the same mentally shared space as he is.
Overall, Hotel Poseidon is on the slightly confusing side of things. In the third act, a moment with Nora allows for Dave to feel an escape, but as a result, he ends up trapped in a cage. I would guess this meant that while he enjoyed this aspect of his life, it was fleeting from how he truly felt. A safe space of traditional relationship roles that slowly devolved after a moment of bliss. Did the relationship confine him, leaving him feeling trapped? Or was it instead just a fleeting dream inside of a more robust nightmare? The duality of death and never living may award all of these notions as true and false. Nothing in Hotel Poseidon comes with an explicitly correct answer.
Lernous’ first film has some issues, mainly in how much there may be to unpack from the world built inside of Dave’s head. However, no matter how unclear the film is, it’s always compelling, and so, for as baffled as I was attempting to decipher parts of the film, I was also glued to my seat trying to understand the complexity of it. I went back and watched key scenes again, trying to catch more than I did the first time around. And, though it may not be a David Lynch film, it certainly exudes the same mystery.
I think the film is worth watching and discussing. It’s undoubtedly abstract. For me, it lies trapped in a place between genius and madness. The same way many typical filmgoers feel about Lynch’s body of work as well. From a technical aspect, the film is gorgeous, and even its low color tonal palette doesn’t impede that. Considering the last two years, the isolation effects of confinement and mental health should make for interesting film conversations.
Hotel Poseidon is now streaming exclusively on Arrow Player.