Paolo Sorrentino's Youth and the hotel as a character

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'It's like I'm in a movie' is a feeling that's particularly apt to wash over you when in a hotel. This isn't because they evoke the numerous films that have been set in them however - from the surreal symmetry of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining to the hollow serenity of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation - but because the hotel is inherently cinematic.

The environment, whether a cheap roadside motel or a 5-star resort, simply craves to have a lens cast over it and to be populated by a disparate group of characters that ricochet off one another. Airbnb rentals might be burgeoning with the consumer, but, for directors, the strange yet enticing artifice of the hotel will always be the more ripe location for cinema, and they're only cropping up more in films.

The last few years have seen several in which hotels are not only central to the film, they are the film; an exoskeleton that shapes the action beneath it. In Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, below), a candy-coloured, willfully preposterous one, located absurdly on a mountainside, proved the perfect playground for Wes Anderson's imagination to run wild. In The Lobster (2015), the voluntary semi-imprisonment of the hotel was exploited to tell a dystopian story about a retreat where guests must find a mate or else be turned into an animal of their choosing. Anomalisa (2015) meanwhile, an arresting stop-motion animation, used the lifeless wall art, stale air-conditioning and uniform room design of the middle-price chain hotel to convey the savage loneliness of a man on a business trip.


This week sees the release of Paolo Sorrentino's new film Youth, another addition to the list and the eagerly-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. The luxury hotel is an ideal environment for the director, who is about the best in film right now at depicting unbridled opulence and the affectation of nonchalance within it.

Guests vacationing in the Swiss Alps included a retired British composer (Michael Caine), his capricious, anxiety-wracked daughter (Rachel Weisz), an American filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) working with a group of younger screenwriters to finish what could be his last movie, and a Hollywood film actor (Paul Dano) who is researching a part for a high brow movie but dogged by his famous role as a robot in a blockbuster. Diego Maradona and Miss Universe are also found bobbing about in the pools.

The hotel is obviously a useful device for colliding characters, but the decision to use one in Switzerland adds a level of detachment. Away from the noise of L.A. and penned on all sides by mountains, the characters are forced to evaluate their lives, loves, careers and stare down the barrel of aging.

Unlikely many of the films already discussed, a fictional hotel was not created using sets and drastically overhauled buildings for Youth, but a very much living and breathing resort. The bulk of filming took place at Waldhaus Flims, a Swiss hotel dating back to 1877 with a grandeur owing to that period but a very modern, architecturally minimal spa so floaty that it doesn't so much feel built onto the Grand Hotel as moored to it with an anchor.

It's easy to see why the director chose it, the building seeming to exist outside of time and space altogether. All steaming heated pools surrounded by snow and log fires with sleeping dogs next to them, it feels like a cocoon, a womb even, and seems to demand introspection. The curious distance from other guests due to a combination of language barrier and polite respect of others’ zen only adds to this feeling. In the movie there is a good chunk where you find yourself wondering if the characters are in fact at a sanitarium, albeit it the kind you elect to go to and where treatment includes gimlets by the pool and pillow mints, to be taken twice a day.

The hotel is decadent and has opportunities for nice shots at every turn, so much so that little had to be changed for it before filming (the lack of staff during the hotel’s off-season proved a challenge, although Caine, Keitel et al apparently quite enjoyed operating toasters and microwaves from their suites). It is pleasingly confusing to the senses - bright sun and freezing cold weather, old architecture and new, hi-tech facilities amid a sleepy village - which reflects the characters at the film’s centre and serves as a sort of pathetic fallacy to the contradictory, existentialist questions they find themselves asking.

The film's official synopsis explains how the older characters look at the other hotel guests and lament how they seem to 'have all the time that they lack', and this gaze at fellow guests is something everyone can relate to - when was the last time you were stood in an elevator and not thinking about what life the other occupant leads, and whether they're wondering the same about you?

It's this self-consciousness that hotels provoke that make them so perfect for tossing a bunch of characters into, and why they're continually interesting to filmmakers in the past, present and future.