Occidental: Dismantling Western prejudices
by Vassilis Economou
- TORONTO 2017: The sophomore fiction feature by French artist Neïl Beloufa is a stylised critique of the fears and prejudices promoted by the so-called progressive “Western world”
French visual artist Neïl Beloufa has forged a celebrated career, as his work has been exhibited at multiple renowned art galleries, museums and art biennales around the world. As a film director, his debut feature, the experimental Tonight and the People [+see also:
film profile] (2013), was invited to various festivals, while his most recent documentary, Desire for Data (2016), was selected by Cinéma du Réel. Occidental [+see also:
interview: Neïl Beloufa
film profile], his sophomore fiction film, has just had its North American premiere in the Wavelengths programme of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival.
One night, in the midst of a riot in Paris, Giorgio (Paul Hamy, The Ornithologist [+see also:
interview: João Pedro Rodrigues
film profile]) arrives at the Hotel Occidental, a place where everything seems to be set back in the 1970s. He pretends to be Italian, and he has booked the honeymoon suite in order to spend the night with his partner, Antonio (Idir Chender). The hotel manager, Diana (Anna Ivacheff), starts to be suspicious of them, as they seem to somehow “not fit in” with the unusual hotel. Following them on the establishment’s CCTV, and with the help of receptionist Romy (Louise Orry-Diquero), she will try to unravel the mystery by counting their steps and even calling the police for further investigation. Is there any actual threat or not?
Beloufa constructs quite a smart, intriguing concept. Occidental is not simply another offbeat, obscure hotel. In the murky lobby, dark corridors and vintage rooms, every kind of prejudice or fear, which the so-called progressive Western civilisation likes to sweep under the carpet, is very much present – including homophobia, and eventually encapsulating profane misogyny, racism and sexual discrimination. This is all “helped along” by a violation of privacy, the media’s political propaganda and speculations revolving around a terrorist threat. A totally non-politically correct sequence of anecdotal events will take place in this claustrophobic and obscure place. It seems that nothing is real, and like Giorgio, everyone deceives – or, even worse, everyone is candid while expressing their ideas. This is the horror that lurks at the core of Occidental.
The hotel itself, which was built by Beloufa in his own workshop, oozes a unique atmosphere. Its unconventional set design creates the illusion of a dated identity, which is enhanced by Guillaume Le Grontec’s cinematography in the Academy ratio. The director perfects his mise-en-scène and brings it in line with his artistic profession, as this retro visual pretence masks the modern-day topicality of the subjects dealt with – especially the extreme-right ideas that are slowly invading European ideology today, leaving no room for diversity. The gay couple could easily be replaced with anyone who is seeking refuge and whose profile doesn’t match up to an imposed, “ideal” image. It takes only 73 minutes for Beloufa to prove something frighteningly obvious, and the filmmaker avoids the austere or strict exposition you might have been expecting. He lays bare the absurdity of modern-day intolerance by building a comical narrative and blending different genres, from mystery and thriller to romance. Without disclosing his references, ranging from Sartre’s existentialism to Godard’s aesthetics and Warhol’s pop culture, Beloufa mocks the demureness of Western society, criticises its preposterous fears and entombs its endangered, dying ideologies.
Occidental is a French co-production by Jacques Dodart (Bad Manners), Neïl Beloufa Studio and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Αrts Contemporains. The film is being sold internationally by French company MPM Film.
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