How lost can the souls of the rich and privileged be? That’s the question seemingly posed by first-time feature filmmaker Chris Hefner in a bizarre and intoxicating new film called The Pink Hotel. The title refers to an exclusive getaway for those with a lot of money to toss around, especially if they want to indulge in the illegal cuisine of deep-fried ortolan, a rare exotic songbird. Invitations for this meal, as part of a champagne reception, are sent by the hotel’s manager to a group of patrons for a New Year’s Day event during wartime.
Presumably, the film takes place during World War II, but that’s not explicitly stated, in part because the attitudes taken towards the guests transcend any particular time period. Demanding socialites, egotistical actors, abusive directors and strange customers could certainly be found in The Pink Hotel if it existed today (in such a film, I would include as guests health insurance CEOs and bank executives). What binds all these guests together is a sense of emptiness. A champagne reception would prompt a festive atmosphere, but not here. Patrons consume the rare songbird snacks privately in their own rooms and in veiled secrecy to hide their faces from the shame of such a gastronomical abomination.
Shot on grainy Super 8mm film, The Pink Hotel resembles an old film you would expect to discover secretly or neglectfully stored away in someone’s attic. It has the feel of an heirloom kept, not because it was particularly coveted, but from fear of uncovering its secrets. Why would any of the boastful guests eat a festive meal in solitude? What would drive another guest insane and what would explain the appearance of the twine in such an unusual location? And who is the strange little girl somehow connected to the appearance of all that twine?
Many of the elements familiar to those who watch the films of David Lynch or Guy Maddin are here: starkly lit black & white cinematography, other-worldly soundtrack music (courtesy of Tommy Jansen, with additional songs by Daniel Knox), strange fatalistic symbolism (as with the repeated appearance of a zeppelin designed by Erin Foley). The similarities to Lynch and Maddin, however, end with Hefner’s acerbic sense of humor. Dan Sutherland’s performance as the harried concierge with a secret agenda is funny, especially in his exchange with a foul-mouthed movie director (Chris Bower). Bower also has a funny scene directing two actors forced to perform by reciting lines fed to them with all the passion of reading a phone book. Lynch and Maddin also don’t have the extremely talented Lilli Carre providing the astonishing animated sequence introducing the viewer to the horrors of preparing the ortolan for human consumption.
I did wish the movie had more dialogue between the concierge and other patrons, one of them not being the injured man who has inexplicable off-screen bits of narration. That didn’t do much for me. Nevertheless, this is an impressive feature debut exhibiting Hefner’s love and respect of nostalgic media and using that technology to reflect mankind’s continued social disconnection. Black & white Super 8 film intensifies that feeling better than video. The Pink Hotel is also proof that great looking cinema can belie small budgets.
Note: This entry was edited to correct an earlier error. Tommy Jansen contributed the film score with additional songs by Daniel Knox. Sorry for the mix-up.