Mumbai is under attack. As smoke billows and streams into her sprawling room in the city’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on November 26th 2008, Anglo-Franco expat Louise (Stacy Martin) edges evermore towards the fenced-off balcony, bravely clinging to her cheap new phone with which she frequently exchanges whispers with her parents (Gina McKee and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, looking fresh off the set of Mia-Hansen Love’s Father of my Children). They assure her – with plummeting certainty – that they will extract her from the besieged building, a promise that they, by this point, have been making for near on an hour. Presumably, the question that French writer-director Nicolas Saada would have his viewership ask is when? And how? Unfortunately, a far more pertinent line of inquiry exists, the line being ‘why was this movie in need of being made and what does it hope to be?’
Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2013 disaster film The Impossible was critically hounded for its restaging of the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake/Boxing Day Tsunami, in particular, for its strident focus on the survival of a small family of white Anglophone tourists as tens of thousands are swept to their deaths on all peripheries, and for the apparent ‘othering’ of the local Thai populace. Yet, however one feels about such narrative decisions/oversights, Bayona’s approach is distinctly elevated in the wake of Saada’s woeful Taj Mahal. A defence could be mounted in favour of The Impossible on the basis of its being an adaptation of an actual personal experience – that of the Belón family of Spain. Rather than a complex investigation of an event, it then primarily becomes a small-scale biopic; an intimate family picture on a sprawling canvas. Whatever cultural myopia it may exhibit, it remains a tale of survival by luck and wits, awash with spectacle.
Would Taj Mahal then benefit from any hint or indication that alabaster beauty Louise, her moneyed parents and their ordeal are more than mere narrative devices? Probably. The story of one or two or three is of no less value than that of hundreds, if there is universality to said story. But if a film chooses to zero in on the plight of a select few in favour of a relevant many, some justification is in order, which raises the question of ‘what.’ One thing Taj Mahal is not: a commentary or reflection on the terrifying sense of randomness that results when extremism meets the everyday. Despite the opening disclaimer and the unwise inclusion of actual, chilling footage of the attacks at the film’s tail-end (which only highlights the paleness of Saada’s fictionalisation), Taj Mahal is distinctly apolitical and unashamed of this.
When Louise and her parents land in Mumbai, they are not exhilarated, excitable tourists but anxious new residents and Saada aptly captures the anxiety of relocation on their faces, particularly that of Stacy Martin (of Nymphomaniac ‘fame’). Saada’s camera is touristic to the point of dullness, and as days spent wandering strange streets become days spent ambling through the echoing bowels of the hotel, it becomes clear that life has not changed, improved or worsened – it is just continuing. In a way, this anti-spotlighting of an impending catastrophe is a smart, shrewd way to instil anxiety in some viewers while lulling others into a pool of false security. Either way, there is a prevailing sense that this film has unassuming intensity in its sights; that it fancies itself an artfully understated suspense thriller. One particularly laudable contributor to this understatement is Louise’s tendency to revert to the French tongue when upset, ultimately reducing Martin’s reliance on overly intense facial legwork.
Sadly, Saada hasn’t concocted a genuine work of suspense. Nor is it a document of survival feats or a perceptive relationship piece. The gently teasing effect of the opening twenty minutes is abruptly slaughtered when a scene fades in with the caption ’26 Novembre 2008’: this is now an obliging restaging. Worsening matters, Louise’s father reveals that they will need to spend two more days in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, quite conveniently. From this point, Saada’s script reveals itself to be an airless misfire amongst the ominously muffled gunshots and explosions grumbling in and out of the admittedly effective sound mix. From the generic words of comfort spouted by Louise’s folks, to a stilted trans-balcony comradeship Louise develops with a fellow European one floor below, Saada’s desperation for emotional resonance undercuts any form of nuance whatsoever. In one startling moment, Lousie brutally silences her mother for attempting to soothe her with an over-the-phone rendition of ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ She may as well be reprimanding Saada for his narrative transparency.
From a Survival Cinema vantage point, Louise spends the majority of Taj Mahal huddled alone in a bathroom, saved primarily by luck, a mobile phone and her parent’s entitled pushiness. Admittedly, survival is not a value statement; it need not be active and heroic to have been achieved. But when a hefty chunk of runtime is micro-focused on one individual’s experience, the experience had better be worthy of the filmic treatment. Furthermore, great cinema has been fashioned around reactive characters in oppressive situations, which then turns the pointed finger towards Stacy Martin. Considered something of a revelation in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, here Martin seems to be searching for a sweet-spot between valour and vulnerability, one devoid of hand-wringing yet emotionally generous. Even though she manages to hit the ball over the net (only just), there are sadly no line markings on the court. So the finger promptly swings back in the direction of Saada’s writing, likely responsible for the laughable moment in which aspiring photographer Louise runs to grab her hitherto ignored camera before she is finally pulled from the flaming tongues of peril. It’s the perfect representation of Taj Mahal as a whole, a film grasping at what it could be, but only after it has spent all of its accorded time being not much at all.