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Sunday, January 20, 2019

ROOM 304 -- DVD Review by Porfle

Danish director Birgitte Stærmose (DARLING, ISTEDGADE) and prolific screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson (PERFECT SENSE, ACCUSED) have set out to make us all sad, contemplative, and mesmerized with their gloomy drama ROOM 304 (aka "Værelse 304"), which is like one of those long, detailed dreams that skirts the boundary between the nightmarish and the mundane.

It all takes place in a high-class hotel where all the characters or their relatives work, but instead of being the story of the everyday behind-the-scenes drama of managing a bustling hotel, which I initially expected, it's really a fairly simple account of the romantic and interpersonal relationships between some troubled souls who happen to work in the confined spaces of a big, oppressive hotel. 

To make the simple storylines more interesting, screenwriter Aakeson has gathered up all the scenes and laid them out like jumbled jigsaw puzzle pieces for us to try and sort out ourselves. That way we see things that will occur much later and don't understand them until they reappear in a different context, when everything finally starts to come together.

We see the little details of married  (but not to each other) co-workers sneaking around cheating on their spouses, daily compounding the lies and suspicion that will gradually come to light in tragic ways. We see a fervid subplot about a laundry room worker avenging himself on a guest who once raped his wife, which introduces a loaded pistol into the mix. 

And we see the desk clerk covered in blood after a shocking murder, but, like all the other main plot points, we won't find out what happened until we've been slowly and subtly teased.

If it sounds anything like an Arthur Hailey story, it isn't.  ROOM 304 is slow, somber, and achingly sad, and we see almost nothing of the hotel's guests or the usual practical concerns of running the place. It serves instead as a sort of dreamlike territory of the subconscious, where characters yearning for various unreachable things wander through their unfulfilling lives like fish in an aquarium. 

Hotel director Kasper (Mikael Birkkjær) and front office manager Nina (Stine Stengade) are having a torrid affair that, we fear, will end badly.  Just how badly is revealed to us as the puzzle pieces drift maddeningly into place, and one person's obsession and desperation override rational thought while other collateral damage is wrought. 

Loneliness is another element casting a pall over such characters as emotionally needy stewardess Teresa (Ariadna Gil), who picks up men in the bar for unpleasant sex in her room.  And then there's the daily grind of service workers such as two Filipino maids who toil on the periphery, observing and chatting about it all and never knowing when some sudden twist of fate might sweep them into a maelstrom of tragedy.

My favorite character is Martin (David Dencik, 2011's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY), the withdrawn, hypersensitive, obsessive (he's always washing his hands) desk clerk. When Nina calls him into her office and tells him that, while very efficient, he needs to "smile more", the nonplussed Martin considers this for a moment and, straightfaced, assures her that he will "make a note of it." He's the one who ends up with blood all over him after the murder occurs.

The visual mood inside the hotel is consistently oppressive, rendered with a richly dark palette and much Rembrandt-style lighting. Stærmose's direction is fluid and artistically expressive, and remains interesting throughout even when the plot is moving along at a snail's pace.

It took me two viewings to fully appreciate ROOM 304, one just to wander around getting my bearings, and another to piece it all together and realize what a carefully wrought and thoroughly satisfying work of cinematic storytelling it is.  The fadeout illicits much contemplation and, for me, a bit of emotional decompression.

Type: DVD
Running Time: 88 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen
Audio: 2.0 Stereo

Language: German and Danish w/English subtitles
Distributor: Film Movement
Extras: None


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