Brice Cauvin’s feature debut as director is an exercise in social exploration that succeeds in excavating an uneasy channel into the psyche of bourgeois society. Deliberately cryptic, Hotel Harabati charts the somewhat befuddling journey of a young French couple into the realms of urban disquiet and delusion. Cauvin’s vision is hypnotic and, at times, haunting in its depiction of an austere city slowly engulfing the young family in the wake of post-9/11 paranoia.
Philippe (Lucas) and his wife Marion (FilliíÂ¨res) begin their journey awaiting a train from Paris to Venice for an apparently long-overdue honeymoon. After Marion strikes up an innocuous conversation with a middle-aged Arabian man the couple discover that he has left behind a large holdall with a label for the Hotel Harabati.
The bag acts as a catalyst, propelling the young couple into a story where their relatively quiet lives are turned upside down. What happens on the honeymoon is never touched upon except that, despite telling family and friends otherwise, they never made it to Venice. In many senses the bag is the physical embodiment of urban paranoia over the threat of terrorism. Philippe becomes obsessed following the discovery of a bomb in Paris and his daily life becomes punctuated by constant radio bulletins on the looming terror threat. While Marion, in contrast, opts for reclusively barricading herself and her children in their apartment, Philippe embarks on a faintly homoerotic friendship with a young man he meets at a local synagogue.
Cauvin’s intentionally immersive mise en scíÂ¨ne lends a sense of suffocation to the couple’s struggle. But the deeply fractured narrative, overtly nonsensical in places, leaves so much open to audience interpretation that it proves slightly frustrating. There are certain instances in the film where the mystery seems unnecessarily opaque. The couple’s flight from Paris to Syria in search of the Hotel Harabati is beyond comprehension considering the psychosis they were both seen to develop over the threat of attack from Islamic nations. The sheer inscrutability of the picture is its one fault, and it is difficult to accept that the couple’s regression and eventual downfall from normal urban life are solely due to finding a strange bag while on holiday.
In Lucas and FilliíÂ¨res, the director finds a perfectly balanced chemistry and the picture benefits richly from both their performances. While so much of the plot remains unexplained, the characterisation is splendid and a short yet regal turn from Anouk Aimée is the icing on the cake. The dialogue is also one of the high points of the picture where, unlike the title, there is very little lost in translation.
The events of September 11, 2001 have had a pervading effect on cinema and art as a whole, and have spawned a predictable spate of pictures from Hollywood. With Hotel Harabati, Cauvin succeeds in bringing an exceptionally fresh and original take on the subject and offers a very thoughtful meditation on the lasting impact of terrorism on our lives. While repeat viewings are essential to fully appreciate both the plot and inventiveness of the film, Hotel Harabati has a boldness that is instantly captivating.