When I think of French film, I think of black and white, of jump cuts and stark symbolism in the lighting and framing of the shot. But when the rest of cinema moved into technicolor, so did French film (duh). The 1981 André Téchiné film Hôtel des Amériques takes into account everything you’d expect from the genre, but uses an extra layer of carefully chosen garments, paints, and lights to add a ton of (potentially too much) meaning.
Right at the start of the film, there’s an immediate callback to Godard’s Breathless—a point of view shot through a car windshield. The car is unwieldy in both films, and the movement makes you uneasy. It’s one of many tools that the director uses to simultaneously create a feeling that you are in the space while constantly reminding you that you are watching a precisely imagined film. When Helene and Gilles meet in a car crash, they’re immediately off to the start of a relationship riddled with pockets of avoidance, closed off emotions, compartmentalizing, and misplaced passion.
Throughout the film, though, I was obsessively fixated on the colors. Being a French film, I knew to look in every nook and cranny for symbolism, and since Téchiné had color available, I knew he would use it.
Helene, an anesthesiologist, is at a standstill in life because of a dead boyfriend, and her color scheme alternates mainly between blue and red throughout the film. Blue, the color of her work uniform, symbolizes work and the distraction it offers from her past which she’s hung up on—sterility, coldness, uncertainty, maybe even physical danger. The beach, which is almost too-aptly called “Love Beach,” is, of course blue. It is a “treacherous beach,” (love is so treacherous!) and Helene’s initial apartment looks directly over it. When Gilles first enters that apartment, he walks slowly up to the wall-to-wall window, frames himself perfectly inside of it, and looks out silently over the view.
Red, on the other hand, is the color for risk. The casino which Helene frequents is doust in red carpets and drapes. When Helene sets a meeting with her old friend to tell him she’s leaving, nameless, faceless hands reach out over a card table—setting it up for the night: putting it all on the table in that red, red room. It’s a color Helene wears when she has decided to move on from her past and face the hard task of loving once again and moving forward. This means that it is also a dangerous color, the color of love and passion, of letting go of control. I tried to keep track of how many times her attire changed, or when she wore summery dresses with both colors, but she switched back and forth so many times – almost exclusively inversely to Gilles wardrobe, and the colors he was re-painting the apartment (baby blue or pink).
Time is also a big stressor to the two major characters. Time and place. I was almost bashed over the head with “past this” “future that.” It was a heavy handed, but it didn’t bother me all too much. Gilles never wore a watch, while Helene did. She: fixating, he, trying to ignore. Neither could ever decide where or when to go, causing them to be stuck in this nowhere space of indecision. The color for the nowhere space? Orange.
The walls of Gille’s mother’s hotel, where he stays for free indefinitely, are wallpapered in an orange pattern. The glow of a club late at night, where Gilles propositions another woman, is orange. A bathrobe thrown into a suitcase one of the many times Gilles decides to move, is orange. He says time and time again he wants to be nowhere—it’s easier, more familiar, kind of numbingly cheerful. Not as sterile as blue and not as fiery hot as red.
Hôtel des Amériques is beautifully shot, perfectly framed. The movement delicate and the story engaging, if frustrating. If you don’t mind indulging saturated symbolism, give it a try. I will say that it was admittedly more fulfilling than spending 2 hours re-watching Parks and Rec for the dozenth time.