Hotel Poseidon. 2021. Directed & Written by Stefan Lernous.
Starring Tom Vermeir, Ruth Becquart, Anneke Sluiters, Tania Van der Sanden, Dominique Van Malder, Chiel Van Berkel, Tine Van den Wyngaert, Steve Geerts, & Julia Ghysels.
Abattoir Fermé / Potemkino Port
Not Rated / 90 minutes
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers.
Turn back or be forever spoiled!
It’s almost foolish to try and review Hotel Poseidon like any other film, because it’s just not like any other film; it’s a weird and endlessly unsettling ride into the Theatre of the Absurd, not surprising given that director-writer Stefan Lernous is also the director and artistic leader of the theatre company Abattoir Fermé. There have been other reviews out of Fantasia 2021 attempting to shoehorn Lernous’s film into the same review mould as other films by focusing on character development and other traditional aspects of cinema. Hotel Poseidon doesn’t mean to portray character development, the story doesn’t want to spoon-feed meaning of any kind, and, by virtue of the absurdity, the film isn’t seeking an easily definable, succinct way to sum up its themes.
The nebulous plot of Hotel Poseidon involves Dave (Tom Vermeir), a man playing the reluctant part of manager in a prison-like hotel owned by his family. The hotel’s a dilapidated, decaying structure with garbage all over the place and a sparking electrical outlet by the coffee perk that starts a fire more than occasionally; a filthy, Gothic nightmare. Dave passively watches most of what occurs around him, from the death of his aunt, to an alcohol-fuelled party of epic proportions, to the existential journey he finds himself tumbling through as things get stranger and stranger.
Is he in purgatory? Is he in hell? Or, is his experience a microcosm of life’s absurdity?
One of the main focuses in absurdist fiction is a breakdown in meaning and communication—something Hotel Poseidon depicts frequently. Right from the beginning there’s a disconnect between people when Dave lies in bed and next door are the loud sounds of sex; a man’s watching pornography. Then the guy, who’s woken Dave up, pontificates and tells Dave: “I think your problem is faith.” A little while later, Dave encounters the “finger banging” lady, who meows like a cat on all fours and generally emasculates him. One big scene features a chaotic party and when Dave first shows up he runs into a random woman who tells him “You have a friendly face, but you can‘t stop this,” repeating herself until she falls onto the floor in spasms. There’s always something impeding communication, or entirely breaking it down, no matter who Dave encounters. There’s a brief critique of the capitalist industry surrounding death, depicted in a conversation between Dave and a couple of funeral directors trying to squeeze every last penny out of him after his Aunt Lucy (Dirk Lavryssen) dies. Their communication is dictated, and broken down, by the consumerism we insert into death by way of ornate funeral services. A laugh-out-loud moment occurs when one director cries after Dave decides to go the cheap route, subverting the expected grieving scenario.
Julia Kristeva’s abjection fits well within the world of Hotel Poseidon and its strange, decrepit hotel. Kristeva writes, in Powers of Horror, that the abject leads us to a place where meaning breaks down; the abject being things like vomit, defecation, or, for Kristeva, the ultimate image of abjection, the corpse. When Dave’s Aunt Lucy dies he’s forced to get rid of her body somehow, because her pension is the only thing bringing any real money into the hotel. He leaves this task up to his friend Jacki (Dominique Van Malder), who’s also throwing the big party. In another scene, Dave walks in on Jacki and a companion cutting up poor Aunt Lucy’s corpse, liquifying her hands in a blender and shoving her organs into the garbage disposal. This one scene perfectly captures Kristeva’s abjection in the horror, and it’s from this point on when Dave’s world truly seems to collapse, all meaning dissolved, followed by the wild party when everything starts unravelling into utter, glorious absurdity.
There’s a lot of ways to interpret the various events in Hotel Poseidon. For me, it’s difficult to ignore the Freudian implications of the story. There’s everything: sex, death, mother issues, religion. The film descends into a Freudian nightmare—one that, judging by the film’s ending, never actually ends. It opens with the sounds of sex, and sex permeates the rest of the film, whether it’s the masturbating lady in the hall, or Dave and Nora (Anneke Sluiters) coming together later to create a family. The most Freudian sexual energy comes from Dave’s stepdad. The stepdad tells his stepson about watching his parents have sex once when he was young and his father rubbed his nose in the “dirty sheets.” Then there’s the constant reminder of death, either from Aunt Lucy being dismembered, the white horse Biblical reference, or the funeral directors quipping that “Death always comes too soon” and “It always comes unexpectedly.” No wonder Hotel Poseidon lends itself to a reading entirely about death.
Immediately it’s obvious how Dave looks not entirely alive. He appears partly dead, or maybe he’s wholly dead already. Everyone at the hotel looks pale and unhealthy, a bunch of cadavers walking the hallways of the hotel. So, is it possible that Dave’s actually dead? That everyone in the hotel’s dead? Perhaps it’s purgatory. There’s obvious religious imagery in the film, like when we see a guy dressed as Jesus, complete with Crown of Thorns, roaming the party; a bit later, there are three Jesus figures. Even in the film’s opening scene, the man next door to Dave’s room mentions faith, setting the stage for a discussion of religious ideas. It’s possible Dave is in purgatory, waiting for judgement. Or, he could very well be in Hell, too: when Dave’s in the crowd at the party, the crowd becomes a mosh pit of people and Dave has to force his way through all the bodies while red lighting is cast over everything.
My main reading of Hotel Poseidon is that the film presents an absurd microcosm of life in general—birth, death, sex, violence, capitalism, and more. This idea comes from the use of aquariums and, near the end, a huge terrarium; aquariums and terrariums are microcosms of life and death on display, where any number of creatures spend the majority of their lives, living them out in front of watching eyes. One of the first images we see in the film is a dead fish in an aquarium with little water, not enough for the fish to swim. Later on there are various other aquariums. Finally, Dave wakes up inside a life-sized terrarium with several women outside watching him like an animal in a zoo. This concept of humans switching places with animals in the image of Dave in a terrarium is reminiscent of a great symbol of absurdity sitting in the background of several scenes in the film, occasionally seen in frame: a manipulated painting featuring a background from the 1640 Peter Paul Rubens painting The Peasants’ Return from the Fields with a crab flying in the air high above the ground. In the original Rubens painting there are people in the foreground. In this manipulated image for the film there are no people, or at least a shot never lingers on them, and we only ever fully see the crab flying high above.
Dave eventually stumbles out of his terrarium, back through the hotel’s debris—the filth and decay everywhere, even worse than before—where his mother’s screaming at him, yet another fire’s blazing from the faulty outlet, and he goes back to his room. There, everything begins again, as the man next door is watching pornography like at the start of the film, and all Dave can do is scream “Turn that off!” This is the reality of being human: the absurdities of life cycle back and start over. Hotel Poseidon is a stunning work of art and all art, regardless of whether it’s absurdist, is open to interpretation. No matter how you ultimately interpret Lernous’s film there’s no doubt of its absurdity, and Lernous pulls out all sorts of unique tricks to take the audience on a strange, unsettling, and profound trip through a nightmarish vision of existence.