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Berlinale 2017. Family Dinners and Parisian Hotels

Our latest dispatch covers Oren Moverman's upper class competitor "The Dinner" and Neïl Beloufa's delightfully odd debut "Occidental."
Occidental. © BAD MANNERS
Has there ever been a film in which members of an upper class family get together—for a meal, an anniversary, a vacation, anything—and, like, have a pleasant time? That’s certainly not the case in Oren Moverman’s Competition entry The Dinner, which is based on the best-selling novel by Dutch author Herman Koch and joins the long tradition of films wherein a family gathering brings decades’ worth of pent-up resentments to the surface, precipitating an eruption of histrionics. The family in question, made up entirely of self-regarding, immoral monsters, are the Lohmans: estranged brothers Stan and Paul and their respective wives Claire and Katelyn, who go out for dinner at one of those ludicrously fancy restaurants where the waiter gives you a five-minute recital as prelude to each of the half dozen courses.
The reason for their meeting, not fully given away until the final reel, involves their children, who turned out even more heinous than their parents. Moverman takes his time building up to the big reveal, dedicating the bulk of the interim to expository, increasingly incriminating flashbacks. It takes a while to get used to this strategy. At first it feels overly schematic, as the flashbacks are for the most part triggered, Family Guy-style, by one of the characters dropping an unelaborated reference to a past event. It’s also irritating that whenever a particularly dramatic moment is recalled—and there are many—the picture looks like it was passed through an Instagram filter.
The acting is superb, however, and Moverman and his actors compellingly escalate the antagonism at the dinner table, opening up an ever-wider rift between each of the characters as backstories accumulate and the plot grows more and more intricate. Steve Coogan, playing the laid-off history teacher Paul, is especially excellent. Initially coming off as comically cantankerous, expressing his deep-seated rancor against his congressman brother through an unrelenting barrage of pithy putdowns, his neurosis is eventually exposed as a symptom of crippling mental illness.
This is the film’s most engaging aspect and could potentially have made for an effective consideration of the destruction mental illness can wreak on a family. Instead, Moverman piles on several more weighty themes—cancer; divorce; adoption; racism; and social media, to name but a few—and through Paul’s obsession with the American Civil War, which is held up as a symbolic parallel to the Lohmans’ family discord, the overwrought plot gradually emerges as a forced and not particularly coherent allegory about the role and responsibility of the ruling class vis-à-vis the divisions afflicting the nation. The Lohmans’ dinner, needless to say, does not end harmoniously.
A completely different, far more diverting set of dynamics is orchestrated in Neïl Beloufa’s delightfully odd Occidental, screened in the Forum section. Taking place entirely in a Parisian hotel while a violent demonstration rages outside, Occidental is an expertly crafted and modulated mood piece that pins five characters against each other: two mysterious guests trying to pass themselves off as Italian with the least convincing accents ever, a smitten receptionist, a deeply suspicious hotel manager, and a bellboy prone to fainting spells. Everyone seems to have an agenda, no one seems to be telling the truth, yet what any of them is hiding or trying to achieve remains unclear throughout. With all the characters behaving secretively and distrusting one another, this very funny film plays like an Agatha Christie chamber piece without a crime, and it’s a remarkable feat on Beloufa’s part that he’s able to maintain such a gripping level of tension and foreboding without ever revealing anything (though he has lots of fun dishing out red herrings).
Occidental draws much of its success from how stylish it looks, even though, paradoxically, it luxuriates in tackiness. The production design of the hotel, which is a set constructed specifically for the film (and later turned into an art installation), is a shameless hodgepodge of ghastly 80s kitsch. The same is true of the characters’ outfits, such as the receptionist’s hair-raising baby blue sweater / canary yellow dress combo, or the furry, mustard-colored overcoat and the Sergio Tacchini tracksuit worn by the pseudo-Italians. These ostentatious aesthetic choices, together with the frequent use of lurid red and blue lighting, give the enigmatic goings-on a distinct Lynchian flavor, while several musical interludes that seductively blare pop music are reminiscent of a Bertrand Bonello film (a comparison encouraged by the presence of Nocturama’s Hamza Meziani as the bellboy). Influences and atmosphere can only carry a film this long, however. Although Beloufa wisely restricts his running time to a svelte 73 minutes, he is eventually forced to deliver some sort of culmination to all the build-up, and in the finale, Occidental falls apart. Thankfully, in a film this resolutely farcical, an anticlimactic conclusion isn’t sufficient to spoil the enjoyment of all that came before.

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