Grief permeates Lisa Langseth’s Hotell. The opening twenty minutes, which sees the premature birth of a child and a mother’s instantaneous affliction with post-natal depression, is played with a startling realism; the camera is mostly handheld throughout, the editing has a sharp sense of pacing to it and we are intimately connected with the sequence of events despite being intentionally placed at an emotional distance from the protagonist. Erika, a young interior designer, is introduced to us in a place of pure contentment – she has a great job, a solid relationship – yet this cruel twist of fate presents her in complete juxtaposition shortly after, staring blankly across a room as she pushes against a doorframe with her feet, trying to latch her feet onto the rim. Rather than center the entire narrative around coping with personal tragedy in solitude, Langseth relies upon an oft-used trope – group therapy as vehicle for re-discovery of self.
The therapy group is less organised that one would expect from the very serious opening. We see Erika (played superbly by Alicia Vikander, in her second Langseth feature following Pure) attend a few structured sessions, thought to be able to help her in her painful refusal to even see her now brain-damaged son, yet it is not the group led by a therapist that actually helps her. After a few fortnightly sessions in which Erika sits in silence, as people slowly leave she reaches out to one other person in the group, Ann-Sofi (Mira Eklund), a rape survivor who longs to be someone else. They decide to escape their current realities by staying in a hotel for a night, both an external and internal shift – Erika says in dialogue earlier in the film that she wishes she could control her emotions as if they were locked in separate rooms in a hotel in her mind – and three other members of the support group come along too: Rikard (David Dencik), who was presumably neglected or abused by his mother when he was a child, Pernilla (Anna Bjelkerud), an older woman crippled by sexual frustration, and Peter (Henrik Norlén), a quiet man with some issues expressing himself.
The film could very easily have slipped into merely an oddball comedy, following each of these ‘social outcasts’ on wacky adventures, but what’s so impressive about Langseth’s film is that whilst she is willing to allow these moments of humour she never lets go of the drama that underpins each of these characters. When Erika and Rikard end up in an odd roleplay of mother and child, on a surface level it is somewhat amusing and a refreshing change from Rikard’s obsession with Mayans. Yet the more the camera actually frames them as mother-and-child a bittersweet sorrow creeps in. Both characters are presented in search of an emotional answer or in need of filling a void of compasion – Erika to give and Rikard to receive. Both actors play it completely straight and this adds so much to the tonal control within the film.
In fact for a lot of the film the characters are concerned with alternate identities – the very notion of hopping from hotel to hotel projects, on a surface level, a new journey with each new location. Langseth also uses identity both as a source of humour and anguish – on one hand we have scenes like that in a hotel boardroom, where the group tries to structure their therapy in a faux-formalist sense only to have it quickly devolve (or evolve?) into an absurd light torture fantasy, in stark contrast to actual identity obfuscation, where Erika finds it easier to explain her problems to complete strangers in bars than the group she travels with.
The film is mostly well-shot, though the many scenes in bedrooms and conference rooms tend to limit the creativity with the camera. Any time the characters go outside, though, it takes on an almost magical quality. Many times in the film Erika walks out of one of the hotels in an attempt to process her grief in solitude and the night cinematography is entrancing. The usage of music is likewise impressive, restricted mostly to diegetic songs, save for a later montage, we have Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” played refreshingly without irony in the same film as a gorgeous song by Eklund herself, a piano ballad called “You Happen Twice” that plays through the opening and closing credits.
Whilst some of the characters may appear underwritten (in particular Pernilla and, to an extent, Peter), Erika and Rikard are fascinating subjects to watch and it is their narrative that drives the film. Hotell is worth seeing purely because it’s doesn’t deal with issues by way of convention – narratively or in tone. It’s an affecting feature that nearly confounds in its ability to subtlely manoeuvre away from clichés of the group therapy story archetype.