The first feature from French-Algerian visual artist Neïl Beloufa is an odd hybrid of comic arthouse thriller and Brechtian installation piece. Set in a shabby 1970s-chic Parisian hotel, in present day — with protestors facing off against riot police outside in the street — Occidental immediately establishes its atmosphere of retro Euro-sleaze tinged with a contemporary sense of impending doom. When louche, mustachioed Paul Hamy (the protagonist/lust object from João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist) enters in a yellow fur coat and introduces himself as an Italian named “Giorgio Armani,” one might think that what we’re watching is just an unusually oblique fashion film; indeed, the Occidental hotel is the kind of place where even disheveled attendant Khaled (played by Nocturama scene-stealer Hamza Meziani) sports a slouchy Lacoste cardigan. But then things take a turn: The hotel manager, spotting Giorgio’s slick-looking partner, Antonio (Idir Chender), and noting that the two men have booked the bridal suite together, becomes suspicious of the pair’s slippery accents and strange behavior, and soon calls the police, despite lacking any evidence of wrongdoing.
The first feature from French-Algerian visual artist Neïl Beloufa is an odd hybrid of comic arthouse thriller and Brechtian installation piece.
Occidental surveys a microcosm of tensions and suspicions within Western Europe, with a stylish eye informed by late Fassbinder and early Almodóvar. The production design, by Dan Perez, is striking and immaculately crafted — the attention to detail being especially clever. (Note: a row of three gold stars over the entrance followed by a black velcro square, implying the fourth star fell off; and murals depicting French colonial wars that adorn the hotel walls.) While Beloufa maneuvers his camera through an elaborate, multi-tiered lobby set with elegant assurance, his script lacks that confidence. Despite some play with language and malapropism (one of the Italians, upon entering their room, exclaims, “So this is your Hotel Occipital?”) and a few nods to Last Year at Marienbad, Occidental never seems fully fleshed-out as drama, satire, nor political statement. Late in the film, after the Occidental hotel goes up in flames and the masses in the street begin to speculate on what has taken place here, an anonymous protestor bluntly declares, “We have to destroy one world so another may emerge”; that his companion’s response is a noncommittal gesture somewhere between a nod and a shrug, is all too reflective of the muddled Occidental. Beloufa’s clearly an artist with a distinctive approach to cinema — here’s hoping his next film matches all that style with a sharper sense of purpose.
You can currently stream Neïl Beloufa’s Occidental on Mubi.