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Review: Splendid Hotel


- In his new feature, Pedro Aguilera examines a certain stage in Arthur Rimbaud’s life, with Damien Bonnard playing the lead role

Review: Splendid Hotel
Damien Bonnard in Splendid Hotel

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. There is never a midpoint. There’s neither a path nor an outline. Just vast spaces where there should have been someone, but there wasn’t; there was no one there.” So goes Damien Bonnard’s voice-over as we see an image of a barren landscape at the start of Splendid Hotel, the new film by Pedro Aguilera, which he wrote together with Nathan Fischer and Bonnard himself. After its world-premiere in La-Roche-sur-Yon, the film has now been screened at the Seville Film Festival, in the New Waves section.

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Bonnard plays Arthur Rimbaud, and the movie tells of a stage in the life of the famous poète maudit when, after suddenly giving up on writing poetry in 1875 (having published only one work, the extended poem in prose A Season in Hell), he dedicated ten years of his life to being an adventurer and became an explorer and coffee merchant on the Horn of Africa. There, he is offered a new opportunity to become a firearms trafficker by selling thousands of guns to the king of Abyssinia. Rimbaud has a dream: to earn enough money to be able to return to France and finally live in freedom and peace. However, his plans go awry, and he ends up embarking on a journey from which there is no coming back.

The film begins from a decent starting point: Aguilera decides to tell the story by means of the main character’s voice-over. Making use of a lyrical and pensive style, this narrator’s voice is the one that expresses the poet’s “self” and the dark corners of his soul: his solitude, pain, anguish, fantasies, dreams, regrets, frustrations, ghosts, obsessions, quests, follies and thirst for freedom. There are certain passages that effectively express this whole emotional world of his, with both clarity and beauty: “We are happy, but we do not know why. Because of a sunny day, because of trivialities. We are very happy, but deep down, we desire something more. But what? Without that, there is nothing.” This voice is what makes the character interesting and imbues the movie with a poetic and mysterious aura. The tone the director is looking for – teetering between existentialism and the search for the unattainable – is maintained efficiently, and Bonnard manages to sustain the character’s intrigue with a strong performance that ends up being the film’s greatest asset. Thanks to this, and aided by the textual, aural and visual resources, there are moments and images that do strike the oneiric, beautiful and enigmatic chord that the film is angling for.

The picture’s biggest weakness lies in its eagerness to show off its pretentiousness and to break new ground when this is simply not needed. The narration and the tone get watered down when Aguilera tries to take the film in a more experimental direction, especially concerning the editing, when he mixes tones and rhythms that simply do not work with one another (for example, a scene with lightning-fast camera movements that clashes completely with the subdued pace right before it). Despite the movie’s achievements and revelations, this pretentiousness also impedes the protagonist’s discourse, turning it into something over-elaborate and over-repetitive, without ever reaching the depth it is striving for. In the end, the places where it really hits the mark are the times it uses specific images and phrases that successfully convey the true essence of the poet with very few resources.

Splendid Hotel is an erratic and inconsistent film, at times beautiful and at others overly pretentious and calculated; a kind of dark but luminous voyage through the imagined voice of legendary poet Rimbaud.

Splendid Hotel is a co-production between Spain, France and Morocco, staged by Barney Production, Stray Dogs and Mont Fleuri Production.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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