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BERLINALE 2022 Panorama

Review: Dreaming Walls


- Amélie Van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier deliver a documentary portrait of the legendary Chelsea Hotel, paying a historic, fantasy visit to this bohemian New York Mecca

Review: Dreaming Walls

"I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel", sang Leonard Cohen, and we too, even if we haven’t been there ourselves, seem to remember this fascinating epicentre of the New York art scene from the 1950s to the 1980s, which was both a paradise and hell on earth, a place of magic and damnation.

An icon of counterculture, for over a century the Chelsea Hotel has been a refuge and legendary venue for creators, attracting artists along the lines of Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe and members of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Closed for renovation for a number of years now, he building is being turned into a luxury hotel, even though fifty or so  of its residents, who are often elderly, are still living there and creating art in the midst of a building site.

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Directed by Amélie Van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier and presented within the Berlinale’s Panorama line-up, Dreaming Walls [+see also:
interview: Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duv…
film profile
opens onto archive footage. Just like in a dream, night-time arouses a whole world of imagination, while on screen, nostalgically grainy images leads us through the streets of Manhattan and on to the Chelsea Hotel. Soon after, the camera invades a ruinous building, caught between decline and building works. But living amongst the ghosts of these various artists from all around the world who came and went from the hotel’s bedrooms are some indisputably lively souls, renters putting up resistance and witnesses to an era which is still in the final throes of fighting so as to resist the unstoppable advance of New York style capitalism, which intends to feed off these precious square metres in central Manhattan.

We cross paths with Merle, Steve, Joe, Susan and Bettina. Between them and the spectres projected onto the walls, we’re no longer too sure who the ghosts really are. They all remember another time and refuse to sweep away the past, preserving by way of their mere presence a handful of masonry, like guardians of memory. But soon all these actors from the past century will disappear. Dreaming Walls is like a sanctuary, a monument to the memory of this place, while time still allows it.

While some of them, such as dancer Merle Lister, the irresistible heroine of this ghost story, work to replay (or re-dance) the past, others cower in their apartments which seem to close in on them as property developers remove them from the various rooms, fetishizing the final vestiges of a soon-to-be bygone time. "Her future died in someone's past", sang Nico in Chelsea Girls, a strange sentiment which feels apt for some of the Chelsea Hotel’s most recent tenants.

Dreaming Walls is something of a final throe offered up to the Chelsea Hotel by Van Elmbt and Duverdier, as if their job were to stare at this fading soul on screen, ahead of its demise, in order to transfer it to other premises and other times. Perhaps it’s also a way of freeing the ghosts which are trapped between its walls.

Notably in the running for the Teddy Award, Dreaming Walls is produced by Clin d’oeil Film (Belgium) and Les Films de l’oeil sauvage (France) in co-production with Media International (Belgium), CBA Doc (Belgium), Hard Working Movies (USA), Basalt Film (the Netherlands) and Momento Film (Sweden). International sales are entrusted to Dogwoof.

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(Translated from French)

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