By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 11, 2013 at 6:03PM
By turns funny, sad and discomfiting, Swedish director Lisa Langseth's "Hotell" is a terrific showcase for many of its ensemble, but especially its lead, Alicia Vikander, who here reteams with Langseth, director of her pre-"A Royal Affair," pre-"Anna Karenina" breakout, "Pure." But more than simply an acting exercise, the film is an entertainingly absurdist, occasionally caustic but never judgmental look at that most frequently mishandled of cinematic subjects: mental illness, its many variegated forms, and how we might find healing in the unlikeliest of ways. In fact, it's to the film's credit (though is perhaps as well a mark of the level of stigma attached to the term) that we hesitated even to use the phrase "mental illness" as it conjures up thoughts of exactly the kind of simplistic, diminishing portrayals that the film avoids. "Hotell" is, more than anything else, about schism: between who we'd like to be and who we are; between how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. And by recasting the ailments of the characters in this light, the film may veer from high comedy to deep pathos, but it never feels less than relatably human in its insight.
Erica (Vikander) is bright, beautiful, moneyed, successful and heavily pregnant. In fact the term that springs to mind is "expectant" as she fits out the baby's room with the best of everything in advance of her planned caesarian date. But something goes wrong, and Erica (in a harrowing hospital scene of bewilderment, anger and confusion that plays out with unflinching focus on Vikander) delivers the baby naturally, a baby that, due to complications, is born with brain damage. Unable to reconcile the image she had of the rest of her life compared with this new reality, Erica rejects the baby even while her partner (Simon J. Berger) begins to come to terms, and retreats into depression. At this point she joins a therapy group through whose sessions she sits largely stonefaced until something finally connects and, along with four other attendees, Erica decides to take her therapy in an entirely different, unapproved direction. Literalizing the concept of psychologically "waking up in a different room every day," the five of them, at Erica's expense, check in to a series of local hotels, in which they use their anonymity to create alternate personas and enact personal, occasionally mutually-reinforcing wish-fulfillment scenarios in a kind of orgy of escape.
What then transpires is sometimes painful, but often very funny, and it's how Langseth (who also wrote the script) manages never to undersell or condescend to the characters' conditions, while also maintaining a dark, irreverent wit that is among the film's most impressive feats. And the cast, to a man, commit to making their characters, no matter how batshit their compulsions, rounded and faceted humans without ever pandering for likability's sake. Indeed aside from Erica, the best developed of the quintet is Rikard, played by the terrific David Dencik, whose Mommy issues, bizarrely manifested in a masochistic fixation with Mayan torture techniques, provide some of the funniest and most surreal moments, as when he makes the group enact some of these rituals on him, but also some of the most disturbing, as when he infantilizes himself for Erica to live through her fantasy of the perfect healthy baby. Yet despite the freakiness, Rikard never comes across as a freak, just an ordinary, and perhaps slightly lost man whose isolation causes a magnification of his oddness. Indeed, it's a streak of loneliness and social exclusion that seems to unite the group, which contributes to their relief at being accepted in this small hothouse, not just for what they are, but even for what they dare to dream they might be.
It should be said, however, that the film doesn't (and probably couldn't) do wholly equal justice to all five characters, despite the game cast. It seems accepted that Mira Eklund’s painfully insecure Anna-Sofi (whose lovely ethereal singing bookends the film) will be fine once her relationship with fellow group member Peter takes shape. And Pernilla's (Anna Bjelkerud) sense of self-loathing and uselessness, borne out of her detestation of her aging body, seems to evaporate after one quick, meaningless shag (a funny, mean set-piece that also highlights the group's essential selfishness as it happens at the expense of the target's clueless wife and children). And most thinly drawn of all, Anna-Sofi’s love object Peter, (Henrik Norlen) has his own second-act revelation, but the finality with which he deals with it seems far too neat: surely, as they're playing out fantasy lives here, decisions made that pertain to the "real" world outside are, at the very least, suspect? Langseth's handling of her characters is elsewhere so nuanced that we expected her to return to his arc at a later point, to shade in some ambiguity, yet that just doesn't happen.
But a lot of this can be overlooked, because as much as there's an ensemble here, it's undoubtedly Vikander's film. Her Erica, which brought her a deserved Best Actress award in Marrakech, is a gift of a role for an actress of range, which Vikander certainly is. Erica is the driver of the whole crazy plan, but it seems to be having least success for her until the final hotel of their adventure when, in contrast to the almost motherly figure of support and friendship that she's been to this group of strangers till now, she has her own meltdown, and it's a ghastly, messy and achingly sad moment that Vikander invests with all manner of light and shade. And as much as we care for Erica by the end, it’s never because Vikander takes short cuts or glosses over her self-centeredness or sense of privilege. Indeed, watching Erica become, perhaps, a better person even while she’s breaking into pieces is a summary lesson in the fragility of the socially-constructed idea we have of ourselves, and in how, when the shit really hits, that idea can be the unhealthiest influence of all. [A-]