2017 Film Essays

The Woman and the Puppet: On Abel Ferrara’s ‘New Rose Hotel’

Shot one: Willem Dafoe’s X, standing behind a glass door, obfuscated by the reflections of the city, looking intently at something off screen. Shot two: X’s point-of-view, the object of Dafoe’s gaze, Hiroshi and his wife walking down a bustling city street. Abel Ferrara, director of New Rose Hotel, cuts back to a reaction shot of Dafoe, who looks away nervously as they walk closer but still watches out of the corner of his eye. There’s an insert shot of a revolver, the course unknown. Then, in a series of quick shots, two masked men attempt to force Hiroshi into a van, the motion of the handheld camera so frantic one can barely distinguish what is happening in the frame. Cut to a reaction shot of X, clearly anguished by the sight before him. Ferrara cuts back to the main action — one of the masked men lies dead on the ground, a bullet hole in his head.

In New Rose Hotel’s brief opening sequence, Ferrara outlines the primary aesthetic, along with the narrative and thematic elements that will shape the remainder of the film. There’s an elliptical structure; an emphasis on voyeurism — handheld, long-lens close-ups which obscure on-screen space, the super-imposition of grand architectural structures on the human face, the intermingling of the personal and the political, surveillance, the unreliability of images and chiaroscuro lighting. It is not until far into the narrative that viewers learn the context of these images: two men kidnap Hiroshi and get shot by Mass’ security team. The fact that Ferrara initially presents a string of obscure images within narrative contextualization establishes that the act of interpreting images will be key to unlocking the film, which largely concerns its characters looking at and attempting to read surveillance images. The New York of New Rose Hotel is a technocratic network in which de-materialized images circle constantly, just like the immaterial money that keeps the city alive and thriving. These images are abstracted from a primary source — although there are constantly surveillance feeds, Ferrara never shows the cameras that capture them, creating the sense that the characters are occupying a sphere in which all private activity is being recorded constantly and the private ceases to exist. The omnipresence of the digital camera has the unconscious result of creating a culture of performance — everybody plays to an imaginary audience. For example, the film’s subtle prologue, describing the kidnapping attempt on Hiroshi, could be a recollection by X, a video recording by Maas, a mental hypothesis formulated by X or an objective report. Any sense of an objective reality collapses — this future is only seen in unreliable fragments. As in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, images are framed not as a window into reality but as a hyper-mediated corruption of reality. However, while Dangerous Game focuses intensely in the process of producing images, New Rose Hotel concerns the consumption. The integration of the mini-digital camera into the fabric of everyday life collapses space — the characters rarely leave their cramped apartments and hotel rooms, they instead watch TV screens that give them views of all around the city. Hiroshi, the ostensible antagonist, is never, in fact, seen occupying the same space as the heroes.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the three central characters — Fox, X and Sandii — monitor Hiroshi through surveillance images. These images tend to be fairly neutral and non-revealing, but all three project meaning, narratives and psychological relations on them. It is Fox’s and X’s inability to properly interpret them which leads to their downfall. In terms of narrative, New Rose Hotel is Ferrara’s most stripped-back film: the action plays out almost entirely between three characters, the action is largely confined to hotel rooms/apartments and most incidents are kept off-screen. Visually, the film is largely devoted to shallow-focus close-ups, often of characters who are not talking but listening to others, establishing early the importance of playing close attention to another person, as well as the fundamental distance from the desired Other — primarily, the viewer shots of X reacting to Sandii and thinking about Sandii. The viewer’s gaze is also filtered through X as he watches Snadii.

Although the narrative is heavy on incident, most of it remains off-screen, reported through characters that are seen in retrospect on digital screens. Any notion of idealism or a higher purpose is gone. Although the film is filled with sex, it’s never engaged in out of passion or intimacy, it’s merely a means to some other end — either direct prostitution, or, like Sandii’s pursuit of Hiroshi, some kind of pursuit of information. The erotic impulse has become subsumed to the logic of the market. Fox, the most disillusioned and opportunistic character, warns his colleague X that “It does not behove a man to be too introspective.” To another colleage, he laments that “If I were to say here now, that the unexamined life is not worth living, you wouldn’t believe me anyway!” This late-capitalist nightmare has been the backdrop for Ferrara’s features as early as The Hold Up, a short written by regular collaborator St. John. Put simply, the film concerns a gang of economically oppressed labourers who hold up a service station. When the police arrive, the gang is arrested while their slavish bosses are released. The police are simple and striking. Because the privileged manipulate the systems of an unjust legal system, their white-collar crimes go unpunished, whereas the truly oppressed — who find no way to assert themselves other than to break this legal system — are pushed aside. The modern aristocracy use institutionalized injustice as a means to exploit their most greedy and sadistic impulses; complicit unions and an increasing economic alienation rise in the lower classes until it explodes in violent resistance. Many of these themes will be revisited and expanded upon in Ferrara’s subsequent films — most notably Welcome to New York, a film which sees a hedonistic stocktrader exploit physical bodies and then monopolize his wealth and social status to avoid legal punishment. New Rose Hotel sees these motifs revisited on a grander scale. It envisions a future in which every element of society is privatized, the only valuable commodities are abstract information and de-materialized money, and all criminal organizations have become huge, technocratic networks. There is a prevalent pessimism in this society which stems, in part, from the widespread dissolution with the government, which now seems to only have been put in place to cater to the interests of the finance sector and larger corporations — as Fox says early in the narrative, “government, corporation, potato, potato.” In this sense, the film strongly prefigures the cinema of late Michael Mann. Whereas earlier Ferrara films such as King of New York and The Addiction create a dialectic opposition between the homogenized high consumerist areas and derelict cast-offs within large city environments under late capitalism, New Rose Hotel takes place entirely within a digital simulated world — all anonymous white rooms and offices. The private sphere has disappeared: there is nowhere free from the omniscient camera eye, and hotel rooms are prevalent (symbols of a space that is simultaneously public and private).

The basic plot of New Rose Hotel takes the structure of a conventional noir but radically strips it of incident: X and Fox hatch a plan to use a local prostitute, Sandii, to seduce the famous scientist Hiroshi, gradually manipulate him into falling in love with her and therefore abandon his family and his job with the Mass corporation. If this is successful, Hiroshi will relocate to be closer to Sandii, and come to work with the Hosaka corporation, who will grant Fox and X a substantial payoff in return. In the process, X ill-advisedly becomes obsessed with Sandii himself, and becomes consumed with envy as he watches her lure in Hiroshi. By leaving almost all the major plot points off screen, Ferrara reduces the genre to its emotional core — the toxic male narcissism, machoism and fear of the opposite sex that typifies the traditional noir protagonist is placed under the microscope, calling to mind Nicholas Ray’s great In a Lonely Place, another film that utilized the basic outlines of a genre piece in the service of a merciless character deconstruction. The major events that drive the narrative are left off-screen: Sandii’s courtship of Hiroshi, the mass betrayal in the Marrakech laboratory, Hiroshi abandoning his wife and child, Sandii secretly reselling the DNA synthesizer to Mass. Instead, there are lengthy scenes of the two protagonists reflecting on events that have transpired and speculating about what their effects might be. They aren’t immediately present in the action because they don’t need to be: they are constantly watching events transpire on screens relaying surveillance footage.

As a portrait of self-destructive masculine masochism and the terrifying unknowability of the desired Other (expressed through the relationship between the director and his real-life lover), New Rose Hotel is reminiscent of the collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, most notably The Blue Angel and The Devil is a Woman (the working title of the latter, The Woman and the Puppet, could easily have been the name of Ferrara’s film). Argento’s Sandii shares Dietrich’s awareness of the seductiveness of her own image and a desire to manipulate this image as a means of both economic survival and sadistic play. As recurrently occurs in von Sternberg’s films, the male protagonists of New Rose Hotel mistakenly idealize (and hence objectify) Sandii, believing that she is a pawn to be manipulated, and hence fail to recognize that it is, in fact, she who is playing them for her own personal benefit. She is aware of her beauty’s effect on men and assumes a subservient role to blind them to her true intentions. Sandii appeals to the masculine gaze exhibited by Fox and X only because it is the only way she can, eventually, assert herself as a subject. Ferrara, in turn, indulges X’s gaze, encouraging the viewer to also sexualize her and underestimate her power. Like Dietrich’s Concha Perez (also a natural performer), this impulse is rooted in a combination of playful sadism, economic necessity and a desire to achieve retribution for mankind’s collective cultural wrongs. Ironically, Fox gives X the task of teaching Sandii how to seduce a man — how to create false emotions as a means of enticing real emotions out of another person. Sandii, instead, uses the sessions as a way to implant this desire within X. What Sandii is actually doing is practising her advances on him. That is to say, Sandii falsifies a persona that will appeal to X’s idealized perception of what a beautiful woman should be; that both X and Fox are arrogant and over-simplistic “readers” of images parallels their status as bad “readers” of other people. Ferrara’s ellipses leads the viewer to mislabel her, just as X does. To be able to intelligently consume and interpret images is a sign that a person is intelligent and sensitive in their daily interactions.

Sandii is not the only obscure figure who becomes the locus of X’s and Fox’s fantasies: Hiroshi, the ostensible antagonist, is a sauce of admiration for the pair. At one point, Fox points out “he’s like us” after he has commended Hiroshi’s genius and wealth — Ferrara implicitly suggests Fox’s desire to become Hiroshi in an early cross-dissolve between the two characters, framed in a nearly identical three-quarter profile close-up. Unlike Sandii, Hiroshi is completely absent, relayed only on video screens, which Fox verbally projects simplistic fantasies onto. In a stand-out sequence, the three characters watch video footage of Hiroshi in a series of mundane situations: doing paperwork, eating with his wife, sitting near a pond. These images have been recorded from a distance, mostly through windows, seemingly without Hiroshi’s knowledge. Although Hiroshi’s expression generally remains neutral, Fox narrates the footage with his detailed narration. He describes Hiroshi’s wife as a “ball-busting, psycho, holy beast from hell” before admitting that he’s “never met her.”  He similarly interprets Hiroshi’s emotions in broad, clichéd ways, with little support from the accompanying footage. His fatal mistake is to interpret others simplistically and inflexibly, to reduce them into simplified types.

Despite his many faults, X is the only true idealist within this late capitalist nightmare. For Sandii and Fox, every relationship serves as a means to an end and every interaction is little more than a power-play, while X forges a genuine emotional attachment to Sandii, and it is this vulnerability that leads him to his downfall. In an elegant sequence, Ferrara frames X’s romantic projections of Sandii’s saintliness in relation to a history of patriarchal viewpoints denying the autonomy of the desired female. After X and Sandii have made love, Ferrara cuts to a series of grainy video images of the pair touring a museum: Sandii is first seen gazing at a neo-classical image of two angels in an embrace, followed by a montage of paintings from the same era: the virgin Mary, a dragon over Rome, an architectural landscape painting of ancient Rome. Ferrara subtly ties the relationship of Sandii and X to a vast history of cultural and social traditions that have shaped modern sexual politics. Without consciously realizing it, X and Fox have internalized a form of systematic sexism that modern society was built on and has pervaded social life ever since. Sandii’s trajectory, from a muse to a subject and an angel into a monster, is framed as the retribution for centuries of oppression. Like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Ferrara collapses history within his iconographic mise-en-scene, stressing the burden of tradition his characters have placed on their shoulders.

It is only at the end of the narrative, after X has been betrayed and deserted, that his idealistic image of Sandii collapses, and he is forced to re-evaluate everything that has come before. Even then, the true motivations behind Sandii’s actions remain fundamentally obscure, to the characters and the audience. The connections to Vertigo are obvious, though the structure of the film doesn’t draw on Hitchock’s ur-text as closely as Ferrara’s explicit re-imagining The Blackout. Like James Stewart’s Scottie, X is a mostly passive protagonist who functions as a viewer surrogate figure. He is a voyeur and an observer, spending most of the narrative looking at events from which he remains essentially detached. X breaks into a hotel through a window, seemingly about to do something heroic, but he is only sneaking up on Sandii. And, like Scottie, he falls in love with a woman who he knows only through false images. As in Vertigo, Sandii is “directed” by the men around her, who try to transform her into the ideal woman for achieving their own ends — to seduce Hiroshi. They care nothing for her inner life — to them, she is utterly interchangeable with any other young woman. X, however, is ultimately forced into an emasculated position that forces him to surrender narrative control. Rather than driving the narrative, the plot is constructed as a series of events which happen to X, and he is powerless to overcome them. As a protagonist, X does virtually nothing, becoming nearly a parody of the masculine hero, as suggested by the glut of Western references made by Fox, such as “We’re taking on Custer.” The controversial ending denies the viewer of cartharsis to an almost perverse extent, as X is abandoned at the moment of greatest climax and the remainder of the narrative sees him confined to a small hotel room, reflecting helplessly on the events that have come before and ultimately masturbating impotently as he thinks about the woman who betrayed him. As the viewer is shown early clips within this new narrative context, Sandii’s actions are drastically re-contextualized. Gestures which at first seemed innocent, naïve even, now appear to be threatening, nefarious: the way Sandii stares at X while flicking a lighter, the way she contradicts herself while telling X about her background (then acts like it was a simple slip of the tongue) and the way she refers to X as “Hiroshi” while they have sex.

In the final shot, a scene is repeated in which Sandii begs X to opt out of the criminal life so the two could marry and move away. X eventually agrees and the two lie on his bed. The camera lingers on Sandii’s smile — a detail not shown before. What does the smile express? Is it genuine affection for X? Pleasure at her plan falling into place? Sadistic joy at toying with X’s jealousy with the full knowledge that she will soon abandon him? Did she genuinely want to abandon the deal at this point temporarily? Did she do it out of sadistic revenge, after X yelled at her for sucking Hiroshi’s cock? Were any of the feelings she claimed to feel for X authentic? Was she planning to double-cross him from the beginning? Or did she only develop the idea later? All these questions remain ambiguous to X, and therefore the viewer. What remains is the image of the nefarious feminine enigma, calling to mind the line of dialogue central to Straub/Huillet’s From Today Until Tomorrow: “where does your hidden smile lie?” Sandii is Pandora re-contextualized to late capitalist America, fully embodying the surface culture and punishing the male protagonists for centuries of patriarchal rule. This is why Sandii is not condemned as a demonic destructive force but is instead framed as a passionate, affirmative figure. After having witnessed events inaccurately, the final 20 minutes see X replaying events in his head and attempting to find the “truth” of Sandii, like the protagonist in Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe, another powerful exploration of a man struggling to reconcile a seductive female enigma. The lengthy sequence at the end involves an odd mix of repeated footage, scene from alternate angles and completely new material.

As in Rivette’s film, New Rose Hotel is structured around rehearsals: there are extended scenes of either Fox or X instructing Sandii on how to behave to attract Hiroshi’s desire. And, as also seen in Rivette’s film, the line that separates the “real world” and the fictional increasingly becomes dissolved, highlighting the centrality of performance to everyday social life. Characters struggle to emote in real life, but they are emotionally open in their self-constructed fictions. In fact, X never says his name in the film, but he comfortably says “I’m Hiroshi Yomiun” during a sexual role play. X, in the process of teaching Sandii “how to fall in love,” becomes too invested in the process and falls in love with her himself. She, on the other hand, gets to understand the external codes associated with romantic attraction so well that she can replicate them in private. Like Rivette, Ferrara frames performance as being the existential bedrock for modern life, and finds in the actor a perfect vehicle through which he can explore the nature of identity. Sandii, in her seductive inscrutability, takes on a weighty aura that approaches the mythic — hence the early shot of her tattooed stomach super-imposed over a slow pan of the Tokyo skyline. As Nicole Brenez points out in her book Abel Ferrara, Sandii’s lack of a concrete identity, of an “origin,” mimics the lack of origins in terms of the digital images that pervade the film. “Not only do images now lack all origin (documentary images endlessly appear on screens, already viewed and edited, with no sign of how or by whom), not only do actions reduce themselves to preparatory fragments and indications of failure, but Sandii herself ends up deprived of her protagonist status. She no longer constitutes an origin or an explanation.” Sandii is dangerous because she represents the unattainability of woman, the inability for men to pin down and contain her, particularly through such one-dimensional motivations and desires prescribed to her by X and Fox. As the viewer only sees Sandii filtered through X’s gaze, she remains unreadable, her identity fractured and impossible to pin down. Narrative coherence is decisively shattered alongside those attitudes towards masculinity and gender it tends to reinforce. Sandii is at once a manipulator and someone being manipulated, the puppetmaster who poses as the puppet. If Hiroshi is the figure who only exists in second-hand images and reflections, Sandii is the character who holds greatest control over the physical realm, as she can take lives. Hiroshi, like X and Fox, only deals with abstractions (corporate information for the latter, mathematical formulae for the former). Sandii creates results. Fox and X remain at the sidelines of the narrative, Sandii becomes the centre of it, even in her absence. Her power lies in her opaqueness.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year. 


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