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Judge David Ryan • Location: Natick, MA
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Review: Hotel Chevalier
September 28th, 2007 9:09PM

First of all, put your pants back on. This isn't about Natalie Portman, or her lovely buttocks, or her slightly-too-visible ribcage. Lost in the fanboy fervor for the notoriously skin-shy Portman nudity is the fact that this little 14-minute short, available for free on iTunes and Google Films (and possibly elsewhere by the time you read this), is the first real film from Wes Anderson since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Plus, it's a "prequel" to Anderson's forthcoming feature, The Darjeeling Limited. Admittedly, this only matters to you if you're a big fan of Anderson's, and have been wondering whether or not he would follow the increasingly somber tonal path he's been on.

Well... looks like he is. Hotel Chevalier -- which also features a fully-clothed Jason Schwarztman, by the way -- is a quiet, grim quarter hour. Anderson, by his account, is establishing the backstory for Darjeeling by showing why its protagonist winds up on a train in India with his two brothers (Owen Wilson and Anderson newcomer Adrien Brody, if you're wondering). Of course this is Wes Anderson, so he doesn't just tell you the story; he lets one small fragment of it unfold in front of you, and lets his cinematography and direction fill in the blanks. There's barely any dialogue in this short; but what dialogue there is oozes exposition, including one truly great line that speaks volumes about these two characters. There's a tiny bit of humor in the script, but much like Life Aquatic, it's hard to laugh when the melancholy levels are this high.

Visually, it's almost more Wes than Wes: the film couldn't be more Neoclassical if it were painted by David. I'm hoping that the Anderson style -- rigid, static framing, primary colors, heavy use of color balancing in the editing process, structured composition, and wide, fisheye shots -- doesn't turn into self-parody in the future. It's a fine line between "instantly identifiable" and "inflexible". The color tone here -- primarily the yellow-orange of low-wattage incandescent lighting -- fits the depressing mood of the short well. It's leavened a bit by a dusk-blue scene on a balcony that closes both the film and a chapter in these character's lives, but a yellow light in a window across the street metaphorically and subtly reminds us that you never truly leave your past behind, no matter how hard you try.

Hotel Chevalier is a tiny little gem. Prequel or not, it's a great example of efficient and powerful short-filmmaking, and whets the appetite for the forthcoming Darjeeling. In this case, you wing up getting more than you pay for. But it does make me worry a bit. Life Aquatic was a difficult film to like. It was an excellent film -- but it was powerfully depressing, and didn't have the sprightly charm of Bottle Rocket, nor the wry humor of Rushmore. This short is definitely a lot closer in tone to Life Aquatic than Bottle Rocket. I'd hate to see Anderson become a director who makes outstanding, fantastic films that you never want to see again after viewing...

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