""Hell is other people"", wrote French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. ""Hell is other people trapped in a hotel on a remote island, eating stodgy food and undergoing regular enemas"," counters first-time feature director Terence Gross. Well, you can't argue with that.
Gross' weird black comedy Hotel Splendide looks and plays like a one-of-a-kind movie but, unlike the island where the action takes place, the film isn't entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Like Barton Fink, it places its put-upon characters in a hotel that's a metaphorical underworld. Like The Shining, the building itself becomes an almost organic presence that affects the minds of its inhabitants.
It's the look of the film that is most striking, with the hotel set mirroring the mood of the narrative. An imposing monstrosity of a building, it's initially dark and unwelcoming, with crumbling walls that reflect the moral decay and physical repulsiveness of its former owner - - the tyrannical Mrs Blanche - - and her disciple-like son, Dezmond (Stephen Tompkinson). A soul-sapping environment, the hotel seems to have drained the life from its guests.
Toni Collette's Kath sounds the only note of sanity in this bizarre landscape, a `normal' alternative to the stir-crazy eccentrics who inhabit the hotel. Likewise, Gross' restraint when handling the more grotesque moments saves the film from theatrical excess.
A dark twist on the eternal link between food and love, Hotel Splendide is a welcome arrival at a time when British cinema appears devoid of ideas that don't involve gritty family breakdowns or overblown gangster clichés. The pace does drop sharply in the middle, but for boldness of conception and cleverly interlinked themes and design, it's worth making a reservation for this one.
The stylised surroundings, surreal atmosphere and edgy oddball characters aren't quite enough to disguise the fact that there just isn't enough plot to carry Hotel Splendide. Still, it gets full marks for originality.