Hotel Poseidon has its international première at Fantasia 2021
Sometimes a place can become part of the person that inhabits it. The very first thing that we see in writer/director Stefan Lernous’ feature debut Hotel Poseidon is a large dead fish in a half-empty tank of rancid water. It is as good an image as any to encapsulate the protagonist Dave (Tom Vermeir), a sort of living-dead hero caught on display in his own environment of decline. In a bravura single take, cinematographer Geert Verstraete’s camera pans from the fish and circles about the grimy interior of a hotel lobby that also resembles a building (or perhaps a bomb) site: the walls are faded and mouldy, the lift door keeps spasmodically opening and shutting, a table is in literal flames beneath a shorted boiler, and everything is in a state of disrepair and neglect. Finally, beneath a neon sign on the wall that reads ‘HOTEL’, the camera comes to rest at the perfect angle to take in a line of maritime-themed objects that together form the word ‘Poseidon’, and therefore complete the film’s title, glimpsed from a very particularised point of view that allows a sort of order to emerge from all the chaos. This reception area of spiralling squalor and stasis, wreck and ruin, serves to introduce the inner state of its chief occupant and owner.
Like Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980) or Barton Fink in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) – but blocked without actually being a writer – Dave is stuck as much in his own headspace as in the hotel that was once his family’s business and is now a mere zone of decay, its doors closed to the public. Dave wakes up in his filthy bed to a voice from the room next door – or perhaps from his own conscience – advising him: “Do something today you’d normally never do, and open yourself to it, that’s all – a way towards tomorrow, towards something fresh.” Dirty, stale Dave, however, is living almost literally in the past, as the sole guardian of a crumbling legacy which he never seems to leave.
Hotel Poseidon is not strictly a ghost story, but Dave is nonetheless haunted by the history of a place where the living and the dead are not always easily distinguished. Many of the characters here, including Dave himself, sport white makeup that makes them resemble the barely living denizens of a Roy Andersson film. Dave’s hypersexual friend Erika (Ruth Becquart) cleans up death scenes as her day job, and carries the ‘stench’ of that work about with her. Dave’s Aunt Lucy (Dirk Lavryssen), whose pension pays the bills, lies out in the hallway on a hospital bed, not ill as Dave has been imagining, but in fact dead. Dreamy flashbacks suggest that Dave’s father (Gene Bervoets) also died on the premises before the younger Dave’s eyes. Dave is held back by his grief, residing ‘temporarily’ in the hotel – a location normally associated with transience – yet unable to check out and move on.
Over one long day and night of the soul, Dave will have a series of increasingly surreal encounters with his nagging mother (Tania Van der Sanden) and opportunistic stepfather Sjarel (Chiel Van Berkel), with a pair of mercenary funeral workers (Tine Van den Wyngaert, Steve Geerts), and with associate Jacki (Dominique Van Malder) who is hiring the hotel’s bar room for a party. That party will be the reeling centrepiece of Hotel Poseidon, as the gate-crashing Dave will be confronted with nightmarishly carnivalesque fragments of his life – not just Erika and Sjarel looking in different ways for their pound of flesh, but an ex-girlfriend, a bully, an apocalyptic barmaid, and finally a ‘crazy autopsy’ that Dave will barely escape alive.
The only breath of fresh air in all this is Nora (Anneke Sluiters), an unexpected and insistent guest to this shut in(n) who brings green pot plants to offset all the ambient rot, and an air of normalcy to the surrounding weirdness. Yet as Dave struggles to tease apart fantasy from reality, and to imagine his fishbowl existence somehow accommodating, or being accommodated by, this newcomer, we are left to wonder whether our arrested protagonist has at last broken free to a better tomorrow, or has just experienced another day no different, for all its oneiric oddity, from the rest.
Lernous has crafted a dizzyingly uneasy chamber piece whose dilapidated, disgusting sets the viewer can almost smell, all to the accompaniment of the shrieking, unnerving glissandi in Kreng’s score. By the end of this psychodrama, you may be left not entirely sure what you have just seen, but certainly disoriented and rattled by it, ensuring that your own mind’s stay in these narrative corridors long outlasts the film’s actual duration.
strap: Shut in(n): Stefan Lernous’s surreal psychodrama offers a day and night in the life of a man who cannot move on from his hotel home
© Anton Bitel