Screening in the Wavelengths strand at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Neïl Beloufa’s bonkers Occidental may not offer much in the way of coherence or thematic depth, but its surreal and charming qualities are more than enough to recommend this bizarre farce.
Two very shifty looking guys posing as Italians rent a room at the Hotel Occidental. The hotel’s manager, Diana (Anna Ivacheff) suspects they are thieves, but with no evidence beyond a spurious claim that their cola-guzzling isn’t sufficiently Italian in style, her staff are suspicious of her motives. Meanwhile, receptionist Romy (Louise Orry-Diquéro) flirts relentlessly with the guests and hapless Khaled (Hamza Meziani) looks on in exasperation in between bouts of stress-fainting.
Guillame le Grontec’s cinematography is among the film’s strengths. A weird mixture of cheap digital video and handsome compositions and lighting, it is very reminiscent of Rainer Fassbinder, the colour scheme often giving the impression of a half-remembered dream inspired by his sex comedy, Lola. Like the visuals, the narrative and themes have a dreamlike quality, assembled as they are from bits and pieces of ideas, coalescing to make temporary sense before disintegrating. A pick n mix of racial themes, social commentary, revolutionary politics and situation comedy, Occidental gives the fitful appearance of sense before crumbling under the scrutiny of logic. But in its surreal, almost Lynchian atmosphere, incoherence feels less of a vice and more an underpinning of the film’s political post-modernity.
But this is not to suggest that Occidental is mere navel-gazing visual waffle – while its imagery is delightfully kitsch, the film’s characters, ripped straight from the farces of Luis Buñuel, are ludicrous caricatures, clashing, flirting, bickering and scheming. Orry-Diquéro is the stand out for her hyper-sexy receptionist Romy, batting her eyes at every passing customer, all the while openly resenting her uptight manager, who battles to maintain her composure amidst the antics of her guests and staff. It’s never fully clear if the ‘Italian’ guests are lovers, partners in crime, terrorists or political activists. Perhaps they’re just anarchic jesters, intentionally acting suspicious for the sake of disrupting order.
Amidst the chaos inside the hotel, a violent political protest is staged outside, though of course we’re never quite sure over what. 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. 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.