Neïl Beloufa’s OCCIDENTAL: Poking fun at cultural politics
Two gay men—a blond hunk, Giorgi (Paul Hamy from João Pedro Rodrigues’s Ornithologist) and Antonio (Idir Chender)—check into a hotel in Paris under aliases. Who are they and what is their purpose? The action takes place sometime now while the décor smacks of the ‘70s. The hotel, though located in the capital, feels like a minor resort-town spot, with incongruent tropical accents and rustic-cabin chairs in the hallways. The stylistic disorientation is of relevance; “where are we” becomes not just a question of location but also a cultural marker.
In his third feature, Occidental (2017), the French-Algerian artist and filmmaker, Neïl Beloufa, stages France as at once a rich cultural mosaic and a caricature of its own civility, meant to hide darker thoughts and persistent fears. With Guillaume le Grontec as cinematographer, the film’s palate—by turns murky and saturated, with a predominance of burgundies, yellows, and blues—lends it eerie artificiality and a sense of mystery, heightened by low light and by the fact that the action never leaves the hotel.
Hotel Occidental is a bubble, and with images of lush landscapes and Napoleonic battles, it is clearly a postcolonial one. It also feels like a television set: a minor affair, placid entertainment, furthered by the film’s square ratio. Then there’s the French sensuality straight out of romantic comedies. A constant seduction between a hapless bellboy, Khaled (Hamza Meziani) and the young blond receptionist, Romy (Louise Orry-Diquéro), then Romy and everyone else, including Antonio who at one point seems to be recruiting Khaled for a mission. Which may be prosaic robbery, or something more sinister.
Thus much of the cat-and-mouse game that stretches over the crisp, quick-paced seventy-three minutes is about the impossibility to pin down anyone’s intentions. Beloufa’s determination to second-guess us, and his plot’s premise, may in the end get away from him, but Occidental delivers too much nervy energy and humor to ignore.
The intrigue begins when Diana (Anna Ivacheff), the strong-willed hotel manager exasperated with Romy’s slow wit, complacency and downright sloppiness, begins to suspect Antonio and Giorgi. She observes them exchanging cellphone calls, strolling about the corridors. Since Giorgi has checked in as an Italian, Diana at one point absurdly asserts, “Italians don’t drink coke,” in defense of her misgivings. We are in the realm of rash cultural assumptions that nevertheless ring eerily familiar. The manager calls in police; the police lectures her on political correctness. The Italian accent slips here and there as Giorgi reclaims his French twang. The mix of races, dialects and cultures looks less like a congenial melting pot and more like an uneven stew whose distinct flavors fail to blend in. Finally the good-natured Romy, offended by Diana’s harsh treatment of Giorgi and Antonio, offers a series of appeasing gestures. The farcical end result is a second-rate sandwich dinner and a sudden hotel fire.
Occidental’s sound design by Arno Ledoux and Francois Bailly is one of its best features—the plot is staged on a day of a street manifestation, and the gas bombs and the roar of street clashes ring throughout, punctuating conversations, increasing tension.
The fire itself is operatic, the interiors filled with soft-rose light as on the soundtrack a mournful female voice intones over the music. With Diana on the balcony and Antonio trying to woo and rescue her, we might be forgiven for seeing this as a soap-opera-Romeo-and-Juliet spoof. Yet there is beauty to this scene, a moment of outlandishness that overcomes its own camp—Diana, we find out, may also not be exactly as we (or even she) thought. Somewhere between Alain Resnais’s ribald comedy, Life of Riley (2014), and Leo Carax’s wild tour-de-force, Holy Motors (2012), this moment has a genuinely melancholy, retro, heart-in-your-throat yearning to it.
Yet the film’s real force lies ultimately in taking this whimsy material and lacing it with moments that are hilarious in a sly, offhanded way—and suggest that to see these characters as absurd minor actors in a contrived television drama also entails catching ourselves in the act of having to, or trying not to, make judgments. And that identity can be a role we play and shed, a performance.