NYFF 2017: Neïl Beloufa’s Occidental

“After a number of impressive short films and one documentary hybrid feature, the 2013 Tonight and the People, French artist Neïl Beloufa offers Occidental, the closest he’s yet come to a conventional feature film,” begins Michael Sicinski, writing for Cinema Scope. “As is often the case with art-world figures and quasi-experimentalists who likewise go for the gold (cf. Isaac Julien, Ngozi Onwurah, Cindy Sherman), the results are mixed but never less than intriguing. Ostensibly the story of a very ’70s-looking gay couple (Idir Chender and Paul Hamy) who arouse suspicion upon checking into the honeymoon suite at the Hotel Occidental, Beloufa’s film is primarily a study in atmosphere and mise en scène. Although initially resembling late Fassbinder efforts, particularly Querelle (1982), look closer and you’ll see that the stilted, high-toned Euro-sleaze of Werner Schroeter is actually the presiding spirit here.”

“With Guillaume le Grontec as cinematographer, the film’s palate—by turns murky and saturated, with a predominance of burgundies, yellows, and blues—lends it eerie artificiality and a sense of mystery, heightened by low light and by the fact that the action never leaves the hotel,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Kinoscope. “Hotel Occidental is a bubble, and with images of lush landscapes and Napoleonic battles, it is clearly a postcolonial one. It also feels like a television set: a minor affair, placid entertainment, furthered by the film’s square ratio. Then there’s the French sensuality straight out of romantic comedies. A constant seduction between a hapless bellboy, Khaled (Hamza Meziani) and the young blond receptionist, Romy (Louise Orry-Diquéro), then Romy and everyone else, including Antonio [Chender] who at one point seems to be recruiting Khaled for a mission. Which may be prosaic robbery, or something more sinister.”

“Beloufa maneuvers his camera through the elaborate, multi-tiered lobby set with elegant assurance, but his script lacks that confidence,” finds Alex Engquist at In Review Onine. “Despite some play with language and malapropism (one of the Italians, upon entering their room, exclaims, ‘So this is your Hotel Occipital?’) and a few nods to Last Year at Marienbad,Occidental never seems fully fleshed-out as drama, satire, or political statement.”

“It’s a world where the police officers are no better than the openly bigoted racial profiling clerk, all of whom force-fit the truth into their wild assumptions about how certain groups perceive each other,” writes Marshall Shaffer for Vague Visages. “The message needs to be heard, yet Beloufa is so obsessed with making a point in Occidental that he forgets to tell a story or unravel any human drama.”

“Content to tease with intrigue and a obfuscated backstory, Occidental gestures towards a sort of narrative nihilism, where meaning is lost among assumption, conflicting motives and tomfoolery,” finds Christopher Machell at CineVue. “Although this conceptual riffing doesn't always pay off, particularly in a second act that flounders for something to do, the climax—set around an oddly-feeble fire that reduces the hotel to ashes—is so ludicrous it’s difficult not to just go with it.”

More from Vassilis Economou at Cineuropa, where he interviews Beloufa.

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