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Saturday, 6 April, 2002, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Figgis unlocks Hotel's secrets
Hotel, a new film from director Mike Figgis, attempts to push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling through its use of digital video, night vision lenses and split screens.
It is the latest work from a director who two years ago made Time Code, widely regarded as a groundbreaking film.
Time Code's plot unfolds in real time on four separate quadrants all placed within a larger screen.
In Hotel, Figgis is aided by an all-star cast that includes Salma Hayek, Burt Reynolds and David Schwimmer.
But the story he tells is again anything but mainstream.
It revolves around a film crew that has gathered at an Art Deco hotel in Venice.
They are making a movie based on the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.
The crew is trying to operate according to the strict minimalist Dogme school of film-making.
This requires that cameras be handheld and there be no special lighting.
The man directing this Dogme film-within-a-film is played by Rhys Ifans, best known for playing Spike in Notting Hill.
Figgis explains that the drama intensifies when the director is shot by an assassin.
"He fails to kill him but puts him into a coma within which he can hear and see everything that's going on, but he just can't move. It's the ultimate nightmare for a director," says Figgis.
What then happens is that the producer of the film, portrayed by Schwimmer, takes over.
And Figgis says: "You start to realise that perhaps the producer is a little bit more involved in the assassination attempt than first thought."
This is all relatively straightforward but the picture takes a strange twist as cannibals and vampires, who are members of the hotel staff, begin to prey on the film company.
There is also a surfeit of bizarre sexual activity added into the mix.
At times, the split-screen images are quite dense and complex.
At one point, as Figgis describes, the audience can see simultaneously three very different scenes.
One shows a night journey through Venice by canal. Another, sees the revival of the comatose director.
In the third, one of the characters in the film is singing a piece of Schubert Lieder, Der Doppelganger.
It may sound a little mind-boggling but Figgis calmly maintains that to him "it all makes complete sense".
His cast seems to share his enthusiasm. Schwimmer says: "I loved how he used a variety of images, just one screen, two screens you know.
"They would fade in, fade out. I think he's experimenting with a new art form."
Figgis has an uncanny ability to get top Hollywood actors to take part in his films for very little money.
Often the draw is the promise that they will be able to improvise and create their own onscreen personas.
This was the case with Hayek, who plays Charlee Boux, an exuberant, but mindless, MTV-style entertainment reporter who is putting together a behind the scenes story on the making of the film.
Hayek was prepared to improvise but she was a little surprised by the amount of creative freedom she was granted.
She recalls that Figgis gave her little time to prepare.
"He told me a day before. I said, 'What am I playing?' and he responded, 'You're playing an MTV personality.'"
Hayek admits she found this a little odd because she wondered why an MTV reporter would be on the set of a Dogme art film with no big name stars.
She says that when she brought this up with Figgis he told her: "That's your problem, you have to figure it out. So you know I invented a story."
When Hotel was first shown at the Toronto Film Festival last year it elicited a memorable response from the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter.
Its critic described Hotel as "an achingly pretentious slab of total nonsense".
Since then, some changes have been made but Hotel remains a film with limited commercial potential struggling to find distribution.
In fairness, Figgis' experimental work has many admirers who applaud his efforts to redefine cinema using modern technology.
The director has enjoyed commercial success with films like his 1990 crime thriller Internal Affairs starring Richard Gere.
He was also feted for his 1995 Oscar nominated Leaving Las Vegas which earned Nicolas Cage a best actor trophy.
But Figgis has decided to take a non-Hollywood route by embracing small digital cameras, some of which he operates himself.
He employs unusual shooting and editing techniques to create some idiosyncratic works.
His films, like Time Code and Hotel, may not be to everyone's taste. But he is addressing an urgent issue that affects mainstream and non-mainstream film-makers alike.
This is the need to develop some fresh approaches to modern cinema to make storytelling more engaging and vibrant.
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