I Don’t Wanna Be Friends: “Hotel Chevalier”

What can I say about Hotel Chevalier that it doesn’t already say for itself?

This short 2007 Wes Anderson film, meant to precede his longer, most recent flick, The Darjeeling Limited, can actually stand on its own. And not only can it stand on its own, but it is actually better than The Darjeeling Limited. Now, this is not to say The Darjeeling Limited was bad, but it certainly didn’t have the emotional depth or impact of Hotel Chevalier.

The film opens with Jason Schwartzman’s character, Jack Whitman, lying in a Paris hotel room in a yellow bathrobe. From the state of the room—very, very lived in, to say the least—it is instantly apparent that he has been there for a while. After calling down to the front desk for a grilled cheese, he receives an unexpected phone call that sets him on edge. The feminine, sultry, somewhat disinterested voice on the other end asks him what room he’s in, and, after he grudgingly gives its owner the number, the same voice tells him she’ll be over in thirty minutes.

Jack springs up from the bed, and starts frantically cleaning the room and himself. By the time the voice and its owner arrive, Jack is all spruced up in a sleek suit and looks as uncomfortable as can be.

As it turns out, the voice belongs to Jack’s ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman. Interestingly, she is nameless in this particular film, and remains so throughout The Darjeeling Limited, too.

(For sanity’s sake, let’s call her JEG. ‘Kay?)

Jack and JEG don’t actually talk all that much. But what they do say is so hurtful, so painful to hear, that it is enough. It is clear Jack still loves JEG, but that she is just using him. For example, though he responds to her statements, she doesn’t acknowledge what he has just said. Instead, she talks at at him, mechanically, without emotion.

A bit predictably, they end up in bed together. Jack remarks on the bruises he finds on JEG’s body—and they are everywhere; she really does look brutalized—but she does not respond to his questions about them. And when he asks if she has been with anyone else, she pauses for a very long time before saying, “No.”

(A pretty obvious link to the bruises, but since I like the film so much, I’m willing to let it go. This time.)

They never have sex on screen—I can’t bring myself to say “make love”—and I was personally glad of it. Given the level of emotional pain their exchanges were meant to inflict, I can only imagine what sex would have been like.

(I’m not kidding:
JEG: “Whatever happens in the end, I don’t want to lose you as my friend.”
Jack: “I promise I will never be your friend. No matter what. Ever.”

Yeah.)

Moving back from the pain of the words for a moment, the dialogue itself was extremely substantive. From the few back-and-forths they have throughout the film, their story emerges. And that’s one of the marks of a very well-done short. Like a short story, a short film must build a plot in a relatively short period of time, and shorts that rely mainly on backstory are the hardest to build: They don’t get the luxury of flashbacks or time.

But it is not just the dialogue that helps to establish the situation and the story. It is also the actors’ body language. And this is where Portman and Schwartzman shine. However, this is not to say that either Schwartzman’s or Portman’s acting is stellar, or even spectacular. In an interesting reversal of the usual, it is the film that actually supports the actors and their styles.
Now, I’ve never really been a fan of Portman’s acting, but, in this case, her particular style is suited to the character. In my eyes, Portman has never really been able to convey the sense of “getting into” her characters, and this shallow acting works in that her character is not an especially deep person, and is clearly out for herself. So the “out of touch” feeling I usually get from Portman actually supports her role in this film, and makes the story stronger as a whole. Schwartzman, for his part, is a good actor. Not extraordinary, but good. And good is all this film needs. His somewhat restrained gestures and movements around Portman’s character at once convey a sense of dread and tired, hateful love, and are only enhanced by his small, somewhat monotone voice.

The first time I saw this film, I didn’t see The Darjeeling Limited afterwards. But it didn’t matter. As I said in the beginning, Hotel Chevalier can stand on its own. In fact, part of me wishes it hadn’t been a companion to The Darjeeling Limited, as it is a far superior film. Hotel Chevalier needs no follow-up. It is beautiful alone.

In solidarity,

Film Bitch