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Let's Put On an Avant-Garde Show!

At the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, Mike Figgis's Hotelhad the sorry luck to screen on a certain morning dominated by more urgent images. But now he's finally getting a run for his latest sexed-up, teched-up, theater-troupe pedantry disguised as avant-garde film. This crack at art-is-life comedy finds Venice's art deco Hotel Hungaria hosting Dogme director Trent (wryly hyper Rhys Ifans) and his underling Jonathan (unmodulating hangdog David Schwimmer) attempting to film the Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, with Saffron Burrows (oft the object of Figgis's stunned attention) as the libertine Duchess. Burrows's actress character is also Trent's girlfriend, but once he's comatized by an assassin's bullet, she drifts Schwimmer-ward. This triangulation is surrounded by split-screen intrigue involving the film's corpulent wife-abusing financier, mysterious flamenco dancers, creepy hotel staffers, and a doc crew headed by Salma Hayek, capturing it all. As usual, Figgis coaxes moon-shooting performances, but all the furious improv lacks any sort of map.

That may be the auteur's point—life is mapless too, no?—but just as the drawn and quartered players workshopping four simultaneously shot Hollywood send-ups in 2000's Time Codeplayed fifth fiddle to the miracle of the DV long take, Figgis's usual suspects are here pawns in another pretentious form-game. They passionately ad lib through the titular structure while scenes play in time-lapse and resolution jumps to rectangular pixels. All the while, the play, the film, the doc, and the hand-held digressions must go on, with their thuddingly jazzy middlebrow Godardisms and libidinal grandiosity. Irked by Hayek's scene-hog gesticulations, slick journo Lucy Liu snaps all too believably, "You come off so abrasive and you just don't need to." Which is certainly always true of the hopeless Hayek, but echoes even louder through the halls of this empty experiment.

 
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