The opening shot of Hotel Poseidon is a lengthy one-take tour of the practical sets built for the film. It begins on a dead fish in a drained tank, then moves through a series of rooms and corridors, each one dank, decrepit and generally repulsive. As composer Kreng’s lurching, almost retching strings and tones writhe on the soundtrack, a series of objects make up the title of the film when properly aligned. The shot makes for a rather perfect introduction to the movie: meticulously constructed, interminably lengthy, slick but vapid, annoyingly repulsive and without substance. This opening warns the viewer that — like the hapless proprietor of the hotel, Dave (Tom Vermeir) — they’re about to become hopelessly trapped in this terrible place for way too long.
The fact that such unpleasantness is likely the point of Hotel Poseidon is what makes the film that much more insufferable. Writer and director Stefan Lernous is a member of the theatre group Abattoir Fermé, a Belgian artistic collective who’ve been around since 1999. While the group have made various music videos and television programs before, Hotel Poseidon is their debut feature, and it shows. So much of the film feels less like a movie and more like a video art installation, the constant deluge of images and tableaux acting as provocation rather than a cohesive whole. Granted, there exists a lengthy and proud history of the cinema as avant-garde playground, with numerous daring artists eschewing the conventions of narrative and form at will. Yet Lernous doesn’t seem to have that crucial additional element of substance that often supports the most impenetrable works of surrealism and free association on the silver screen. Instead, his film is all provocation, an assault on the senses that seemingly has no rationale beyond the assault itself.
More by Bill Bria: Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’
From what little semblance of a plot the film deigns to provide, it’s clear that Hotel Poseidon’s main theme — it’s too thin to even call it a thesis — regards the totality of suffering encountered in daily life. Dave begins his day being forced to listen to an unseen neighbor watch porn at an obnoxious volume, and is then plunged into increasingly uncomfortable encounters with ex-lovers, fake friends and an overbearing mother (Tania Van der Sanden) who berates Dave about anything and everything, including and especially dealing with the grotesque corpse of his Aunt (who may not even be his Aunt). While that description may sound like your run of the mill indie dramedy, very little in Hotel Poseidon concerns realism — the entire movie may simply be in Dave’s head, or a waking hallucination, or an exaggeration of reality, or some mixture of the above. Certainly, cinematographer Geert Verstraete’s camera rarely stays still, constantly gliding through the space as if the film were a dream. Of course, a nightmare might be a more appropriate term, as the movie piles hardship after hardship onto Dave’s shoulders, with even an attractive girl he flirts with, Nora (Anneke Sluiters), becoming yet another source of pain for the man.
Following Dave as he moves from each room and to each encounter might be compelling if there was the sense that the character was somehow deserving (or even undeserving) of this punishment, but Hotel Poseidon seems to want him to be as ineffectual as possible. This is reflected in Vermeir’s performance, as the actor often reacts to the torturous things he must endure while they’re happening, but seems to forget them moments later, deadpanning his way to the end of the movie. Perhaps Dave’s rare bursts of emotion can be seen as some kind of progression, but that doesn’t seem to be the point — Lernous wants to drown his lead along with his audience in as much unpleasantness as possible, not caring how or even if they break their resolve. Thanks to Dave being more of a cypher than a character, it’s easy to claim that Hotel Poseidon has no plot whatsoever, with it being instead a series of bits and images that exist unmoored, save the feelings of hopelessness and misery that connect them.
More by Bill Bria: In Memoriam: The Verisimilitude of Richard Donner
In a way, Hotel Poseidon works better if not considered a movie at all, but rather as an art exhibit. Lernous unquestionably gives the film a distinctive look, with the disgustingly dirty sets drenched in a sickly aquamarine green and just about every character wearing white pancake makeup that’s somewhere between Kabuki theatre and the Joker. It’s an aesthetic that would be better suited to a music video, with the neon lights, garish contrast and copious use of fog machines perfect for some metal band’s lead single. At times, Lernous leans into the artificiality of the aesthetic, making the tour through the hotel feel like a POV video of a haunted house. One sequence in the middle of the film evokes the increasingly manic climax of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017), and Lernous orchestrates the chaos well. It’s just that the chaos is once again hitting the same note of misery that is being struck since that very first shot of the film, adding nothing to the experience save more noise.
Like any work of surrealism, one is likely to get more out of Hotel Poseidon based on how much one puts into it. There are certainly more than enough symbolic objects and odd dialogue (along with the delivery of that dialogue) to concoct numerous theories on what each scene means, if not the whole of the movie. The problem is that the film itself refuses to give the audience any keys to unlock these moments, leaving them empty spaces rather than doorways to deeper meanings or emotions. Hotel Poseidon feels like a feature-length adaptation of that article by The Onion about Marilyn Manson going door-to-door to shock people — clearly, Abattoir Fermé considers Hotel Poseidon their flagship work that can bring their art to more people than they previously could. While the film feels undeniably successful in the way it translates the group’s theatrical experience from the stage, it’s hard not to wish that they would’ve simply left it there.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.