Hotel Chevalier, directed by Wes Anderson, 2007
In 1969, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where do you go to, my lovely?” hit the UK Singles Chart and reigned for four weeks, winning the Ivor Novello Award for best song later on. In 2005, Anderson used it for his chic and poignantly soothing short film Hotel Chevalier, often understood to be a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, providing a back-story to the melancholic, pensive character played by Jason Schwartzman. However, being an absolute Wes Anderson junky, I can say with conviction that a lot of his characters seem to suffer and (fail to)express themselves in similar ways. Hotel Chevalier, thus can be watched (and re-watched, many times), not as a prelude leading to the “real” story of the feature film, The Darjeeling Limited, but as a short, crisp performance of its own- a visual treat not masquerading, but celebrating its deeply poignant core.
Hotel Chevalier opens with a characteristic wide shot of a posh hotel reception, where the receptionist picks up a call. The story of the film takes up from the second shot, which after the perfect visual symmetry of the first, seems jarring and uncharacteristic Anderson. It is a cluttered hotel room, lighted by a mellow glow with different shades of yellow. On the left however, is a television, screening a black and white (which looks blue) picture of a trail of corpses covered from head, to reveal their ankles and toes. As if to match them in effortless (a)symmetry, one finds a pair of well groomed feet jutting out from under a lush yellow housecoat on the bed. These belong to the protagonist, played by Jason Schwartzman who, we see giving orders for a scrumptious meal for room service, in French. When the phone rings next, a woman says hello, in a teasing, yet familiar tone. He freezes for a moment but cannot resist the prospect of meeting her. He spends the next half hour, tiding up the room, planning on what music to play(the Sarstedt track), arranging some figurines on the table, taking a bath and getting dressed in a black and grey suit.
The way he gets finicky at arranging the material setting of their meeting, is a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of Anderson’s cinema itself- how important the positioning and arrangement of each object and décor of a place, a screen or a stage are, for human interactions and expressions. Ultimately, a lot of his cinema is about the pathos evoked through objects, especially through shots when people converse with and through objects, leaving their traces on them. Therefore, when Natalie Portman’s character struts in, in the following scene, chewing a toothpick confidently, not only is this site a disturbance to the well arranged room, but becomes an important characteristic for her. It is at once an agent of defiance and individuality.
In that sense, much of Anderson’s scenes are about the effective deployment of pastiche. Sarstedt’s song is of course a superior pastiche in itself- replete with references to Marlene Dietrich, Sacha Distel , the Rolling Stones, the fancy apartment at Boulevard Saint-Michel, the qualifications from Sorbonne, this song is a montage of everything that was fashionable in the 60-s European popular culture- an “A-Z of European zeitgeist”, that everyone was well read in, at the time. However, at the end of the day, the lover-singer wishes to meet his beloved in her lonely nakedness, having known her intimately through the days when she was nothing and had not hidden herself behind Fashion’s ornamentations. Hotel Chevalier is also a song of intimacy, of cherishing someone closely, beneath their garb of societal Fashions. That is how aesthetically and cleverly, the pastiche is maneuvered. The allusions are known by most of his audience, but our association with each is purely subjective and personal. Therefore, Natalie Portman’s character, as she touches the objects across the room and interrupts the music, sometimes with her questions and once with a wind up musical instrument, actually writes herself in his life, through the objects that do not belong to him, but the hotel, hence shared and meant to be universal.
Through their conversation, one understands that he had been aimlessly occupying this room for more than a month, though she will stay just one night. They ask each other if they had slept with anyone else, implying after leaving each other. It is clear from their expressions that the woman has, but the man has not. There is fleeting moment of contestation before they decide mutually that it “doesn’t matter”. As they start engaging in a passionate lovemaking, he finds quite a few bruises on her body, which remain unanswered. The poignancy in their relationship reaches its climax when to her “I can’t lose you as a friend”, he replies aggressively “I will never be your friend”.
They lie ensconced in each other’s arms for a moment, before he suggests they could stand at the balcony to get a view of Paris. The camera slows down, and Sarstedt’s song plays louder, as he hands her his yellow housecoat and they proceed towards the balcony. The search for the personal and intimate is complete, when in the last scene he hands her the toothpick to chew- a detail only he knows, probably since the time they were begging in “the back street of Naples”.
Of course, being shot in a hotel, I cannot help wondering whether this is an anticipation of The Grand Budapest Hotel. What is interesting is that, once I started reading up on this film, I discovered that this is in fact not a film set; but an actual hotel- the Hôtel Raphael in Paris, which had also been the setting for films like Love in Paris and the Place Vendôme.
The film in its entirety is a witty play on pastiche. One can imagine, how this same room and the same corridors have been seen in a 2-dimensional screen through different angles, got enhanced by different lights, reeked of so many memories. One can imagine how they left their traces and their footsteps in the form and content of this film and on Anderson’s portrayal of Parisian rooftops, just as old lovers leave their mark of familiarity on each other, that is never quite erased or forgotten.