Hotel Poseidon comes courtesy of Abattoir Ferme, a Belgian theater ensemble whose website characterizes the company’s voice as “provocative, physical, immersive, disturbing, highly visual, and often with a dark sense of humor.” That certainly describes Hotel Poseidon, the first feature film from the troupe, one with a style reminiscent of the likes of David Lynch, Roy Andersson, and Darren Aronofsky. An existential dramedy-horror hybrid with a hefty dose of surrealism coursing through its veins, the film instantly creates an atmosphere of such nauseating dread that it threatens to suffocate the proceedings within its opening moments. As the camera makes several sweeping revolutions around the lobby of the eponymous location, we witness such distinct sights as dead fish, peeling wallpaper, mold-covered walls, dripping ceilings, a coffee maker bursting into flames, and an elevator whose malfunctioning doors invite comparisons to the gaping maws of Hell, its horrific sounds cast by sharp dissonant strings — courtesy of Belgian project Kreng, headed by composer Pepijn Caudron — that fill the soundtrack, guiding viewers toward their own personal panic attack.
A nifty title reveal created out of items within the lobby itself gives way to the introduction of our protagonist, Dave (Tom Vermeir), proprietor of the hotel and whose room is pure nightmare fuel. The production design by Sven Van Kuijk is the stuff of Harmony Korine’s wet dreams: the detail afforded to each present atrocity is effectively nauseating, from the yellow water pouring down the walls into crud-covered catch-alls to the shit-filled toilet to the stained sheets to the pair of pants in the corner so crusty they literally stand on their own. Dave himself resembles an embalmed Will Ferrell, white pancake makeup covering his face and greasy hair splayed across his head. A disembodied voice from a neighboring room implores Dave to get out of bed and face the world, a proposition that will prove to have dire consequences. In this way, Hotel Poseidon gets by on sheer audacity alone for its first 15 minutes. Writer-director Stef Lernous creates a world of stunning specificity, its mood of mounting anxiety making it tough to look away. But the film soon takes on the air of any number of debut indie features in which weird affectations exist solely for the sake of their outre qualities: Dave’s mascara-smeared girlfriend(?) is introduced finger-banging herself on a soiled couch before getting on all fours and meowing, rubbing her head on Dave’s legs; a tourist stops by and demands to be given a room even though she has no money and should run screaming upon entering the lobby; a deceased relative prompts the arrival of two giggling funeral home workers. And the stunning authenticity of the production design clashes with the artificiality of the performances, all operating in an exaggerated register of theatricality.
Indeed, it all becomes quite numbing and more than a little obnoxious, that is until a late-film pivot into Aronofsky/mother! territory, as the hotel hosts a party that spins wildly out of control. At this point, it’s already fairly easy to read the hotel as a physical manifestation of purgatory, with representations of Heaven and Hell both fighting for Dave’s soul…and that’s even before we get an extended riff on the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Taken as a whole, Hotel Poseidon seems to posit that life itself is nothing more than its own kind of purgatory, a place between the binaries of right and wrong, good and evil, an exhausting, never-ending game in which mere survival is its own victory. But while suggesting that getting out of bed might not even be worth it is about as pessimistic as it gets, it’s not all that interesting or profound, and these dank thematics are a primary reason why Hotel Poseidon ultimately feels so trite and empty. The film’s immersive and undeniably impressive style invites viewers to peel back layers, but all there is to find is a poisoned pit as its center. Lernous and, by extension, Abattoir Ferme, prove their mettle as creatives with Hotel Poseidon; next time, they would be wise to leave the Philosophy 101-level posturing at the door.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 5.