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Hotel Monterey, one of the earliest films by the great Chantal Akerman, is a work of establishing shots that establish nothing. It is an exhaustive catalog of small spaces within a whole that never becomes coherent. It is obsessed with symmetry, geometry, and the transformative power of the elevator. I absolutely loved it.
It’s also only an hour long, and that never hurts.
Let’s start by talking about those elevators. There are long stretches of Hotel Monterey which take place inside elevators as they move up and down the floors of the eponymous building. We see the hallway outside the elevator, then the door shuts, and moments later it opens again onto an entirely new location. Akerman seems fascinated with the visual trickery on display here. It’s almost like a magic trick, concealing one hallway and then (admittedly, without a magician’s flourish) revealing that a different one has taken its place. She also takes the reverse approach, showing people disappearing into elevators from an exterior position. These people are swallowed up by the spaces they inhabit, or else the spaces swallow themselves up in a strange ouroboros effect. The elevators are the subject of an image that can change it from within, barely motivated by human interaction. Akerman seems infatuated with the idea that an automated machine can have such radical influence on the visuals that ostensibly contain them.
But it isn’t all these ups and downs. With few other exceptions, the rest of the film is concerned with unchanging spaces within the hotel. Akerman’s images are solid, sturdy, completely motionless until the film’s final third. They seem to be held up by the hotel walls themselves, as though the slightest camera move would have them collapse. Even the tracking shots later in the film slide evenly up and down hallways, never turning or shifting away from a composition with two walls squarely on either side of the frame. There are frames within frames as well; subjects are set securely in small spaces between doorframes or corners, or inside a small wall mirror as in the film’s opening shot. They seem almost crushed by the images they inhabit. The few times we see people outside this constriction, they are still stuck in their seats by the will of the camera — and the filmmaker.
Despite the ambitions one might ascribe to it, the film makes no bones about the fact that the camera’s presence alters whatever it films. In one memorable moment, the elevator door opens and a woman begins to walk inside, only to see the camera (and, presumably, Akerman herself) and step back. These seemingly empty spaces are never truly empty. The camera’s presence makes it hard to appreciate them as such.
We must also contend with the fact that the pleasures of observing these spaces, with their attractive geometries and mostly unpopulated territories, comes only because of the way the camera constructs them. These rooms and hallways do not exist solely in the precise symmetrical angles Akerman shoots them in. The camera creates these perspectives. It takes a portion of each space and leaves the rest unseen. We see this most clearly in my favorite moment of the film. Akerman shoots a perfectly even hotel room, the bed exactly centered and the light nicely even. Then she cuts to the same room, but rearranged. The bed is shoved to the side, the lighting is more focused, a chair has been added, and a woman is sitting in it. The space has been totally disrupted in an instant. If not for the sequencing of the two shots, you probably wouldn’t even know it was the same room.
Akerman makes no judgement on the room’s reorganization. Is the second shot an attack on the desirable order of the first, or has it been made more approachable and alive by human intervention? It’s easy to assume, given the rest of the film, where Akerman’s preferences lie. But I’m not so certain. I get the feeling that there’s something disturbing to her about these balanced, empty spaces. There’s no score or narration in Hotel Monterey, which far from giving the film a neutral tone, induced a feeling of dread. These spaces are not natural. They squeeze the life out of their subjects. Even when we finally get some exterior shots near the end of the film, Akerman pulls back to show that she’s still inside the hotel. It’s like she’s trapped inside, desperate after an hour’s runtime to be let out.