Credit: Venice Film Festival
by Zach Lewis Featured Film

The Palace — Roman Polanski [Venice ’23 Review]

September 10, 2023

At first glance, the Gstaad Palace looks like the last vestige of European aristocracy. The town of Gstaad, Switzerland itself catered only to the ultra-wealthy of the 20th century as evinced by quite the proud roll call of celebrities and moguls on its Wikipedia page. So, the Palace (notably not “l’hôtel” nor the “chalet”) should theoretically act as the house upon a hill, sheltering royalty or damn-near-royalty. And, to some degree, it did. But upon closer inspection, the building resembles something closer to Disneyland — the newly built Swiss chalet style also features medieval corner towers to hint at an invented history. So, this not-quite-palace, not-quite-chalet, not-quite-castle, not-quite-hotel stands among the snow, welcoming the wealthy to cosplay vaguely European aristocracy as they mingle in the fondue restaurant that was once UBS’s vault and take in the architectural façade once featured in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). The whole thing seems like a joke, one the regular guests aren’t quite in on. Surely, a resident of Gstaad, seeing this display year after year, would find it ripe material for a light comedy about the people who are so fixated on themselves that they can’t even see what they look like. Sure enough, Gstaad resident Roman Polanski did just that, resulting in the worst film of his career.

The Palace, shot in the eyesore itself, is nominally a comedy about the silly, evil guests who would have graced the halls of the hotel on New Year’s Eve 1999. Despite the low 17-million-euro budget, the movie boasts quite the ensemble cast, linked together by the gendarme of a manager in Hansueli (Oliver Masucci), who, to his credit, knows how to handle the worst people in the world and is prepared to bury bodies for them. Among the guests: up-to-no-good Russians interested in the hotel’s vault and young women, a porn star (Luca Barbareschi), an octogenarian Texas billionaire with blood pressure high enough to crush a submarine (John Cleese, whose performance connotes that he may, at some point in his life, have heard of Texas) and his child bride (Bronwyn James), some plastic surgery veterans and their doctor, on-paper royalty with royal pooch in tow, and Mickey Rourke, who plays a much less fun version of Uncut Gems’ Wayne Diamond. There’s no magisterial camerawork to link these characters in their godawful space, nor is there any narrative throughline to provide tension, coherence, or interest. Instead, each scene is an enclosed vignette, where every character proffers proof of their cretinous nature, only to jolt over to the next room before, God forbid, anything interesting happens.

On paper, this doesn’t make sense. Polanski knows how to direct a film, even if financing stumbles. It’s also co-written by the scenarists of last year’s masterwork EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, who also co-wrote Polanski’s first feature Knife in the Water, and Ewa Piaskowska). And it’s set in Polanski’s home turf of Gstaad (also, notably, where three actresses accused Polanski of sexual assault and rape), though some terrible CGI renderings of the hotel’s exterior leave one questioning how much even that’s true. This should be Polanski’s send-up of the assholes he has to deal with every winter, but every punch is pulled and every joke fumbles the punchline. There’s a Weekend at Bernie’s setup so full of promise and delightfully mean whimsy that can only inspire anger when it goes nowhere; other jokes include a dog’s caviar-induced scatological issues and maybe just the fact that these people all look ridiculous. It comes across as pals Skolimowski and Polanski hashing out bits and inside gags about people they know, so each damning moment is tempered with a gentle rib jab from Alexandre Desplat’s tinkling score (itself a gag, as one could swear it was merely generic royalty-free interludes). During the final scene, the 20th century is left behind and Polanski, now 90, presents us with perhaps his final cinematic image that has to be seen to be believed, his image of the 21st century in all its rancid stupidity. In reality, in the year 2000, Disneyland super-fan Michael Jackson tried to purchase the Gstaad Palace — the whole thing — to no avail. Now that’s funny.

Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 1.