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The hotel space is one of the most uncanny products of the modern world. On the one hand, it accommodates leave and stay, transit and temporary spatial engagement, physically disarranging territorial compositions. On the other, it problematises the sense of being as it simultaneously constructs a sheltering, private realm and a space of anonymity, alienation and surveillance. The hotel space is neither public nor private, it is a grey zone in-between that has been long overlooked.1 This problematic space of sheltering, floating, transferring, and connecting allows public-private, individual-collective, homely-alienating identities and sensations to collide and merge. Hotels shape a kind of super-connectivity that links people’s physical movement and geographical flow to the ever shifting and rapidly developing world. 

Hotel spaces evoke people’s un-situated desires, problematic sentiments and their disengagement with the world in Ossessione (Obsession, Luchino Visconti, 1943) and Le conseguenze dell’amore (The Consequences of Love, Paolo Sorrentino, 2004). Both films underline themes about social problems and conflicts, comprising social repression and alienation, class struggle, corruption, crime and detective. Moreover, they were both made during moments of historical and political threshold. Although set in different contexts, they both use hotel spaces to project “distorted, misdirected, and frustrated” passion and desire.2 

Obsession was produced during “the fall of Fascism and the birth of the new nation”.3 Its artistic approach also reflects the nation’s historical transition: the theme of passion challenges the Fascist notion of filial loyalty; while its depiction of landscape and architecture departs from the tradition of illustrating the narrated world and transcends the gaze of both the viewers and the characters, beyond the diegesis. 

The Consequences of Love also marks a transitional period in Italy. After the detention of many Mafia leaders, it was the time of the “emergence of mass movements opposed to the Mafia”.4 The Mafia’s representation was shifted along the “age of commemorations” in which grassroot individuals challenge its existence and recognise it as a collective, penetrating social disease.5 Unlike earlier films, such as Il Boss (The Boss, Fernando di Leo, 1973) that highlight the violence of the Mafia and its rival, Consequences focuses on the middleman’s incarceration, isolation and desperation with a calm tone and through Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography, which features claustrophobic, entangling and labyrinth spatial compositions, focusing on internal states.

Cinematically, the films share similar themes and aesthetics, including exile, run-away journeys, and masterful designs of landscape and cinematic space, and their psychological implications illustrate empowered architecture from different periods. Their hotels become the inevitable prison for displaced individuals and examine how such spaces heighten emotional intensity through marginal, temporary, but pseudo-homely spheres of trauma and anxiety.

In Obsession, the rich, lavish hotel space in sex worker, Anita’s (Dhia Cristiani) room evokes the seductive nature of visual space and creates the meaning behind it; whereas in Consequences, the graphical, minimalistic, empty, or almost nihilist architecture and space allures to a certain degree, evoking an empty spectacle and the illusive display of blandness in which the idealised or the seemingly constructed imaginary space is disconnected from reality.

Obsession

In Obsession, unlike the bright, sunshine outside in the opening, the indoor hotel space conveys a completely different atmosphere and mood as it enters a much darker, shadowy environment, depicting the characters’ struggling and their trauma through a complex and entangled spatial construction. The bedroom scene depicts a narrow, confined space of desire. Gino’s (Massimo Girotti) muscular physique in the foreground is positioned on the left of the frame, whereas Giovanna’s (Clara Calamai) seductive posture is reflected in the mirror in the background. They are visually split by the line on the wall, evoking a sense of multi-spatial communication. However, the viewer is aware that they are in the same space. The tight spatial construction stresses the sense of claustrophobia and their intense exchange with the constantly flowing shadows and light. Within this confined space, the manipulation of visual layers, the mirror reflections and the graphical quality amplifies the spatial limitation, opening up the potentiality of the relationship outside domesticity and social norms, sparking their sensuous passion through oppressive visual construction as if space is a site of “desire for desire itself”.6 

When Giovanna talks about her marriage, she sits on a chair against the plain wall as if she is confessing a crime or talking to herself in a completely different space. The woman-against-wall image can be also found in Michelangelo Antonioni’s work, such as, Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) and La notte (The Night, 1961), depicting alienation, emotional collapse, and female vulnerability when battling against the world. Giovanna’s attachment to the wall also implies similar sensations. It seems that she is passively pushed against the wall by her extreme inner turmoil while actively attaching to the wall, seeking a sense of touch and re-connection that she desperately desires but is unable to achieve.  

The hotel bar scenes also illustrate the way noir space correlates with perspectival and corporeal movements. After the police interview, the couple go back to the bar where everything is packed and everywhere breathes a sense of deadliness. The long take following their body movement within the bar is significant in that the camera chooses to film them in a distanced position where our vision is always obstructed by certain barriers, such as chairs, tables, and walls. Instead of following their movements, the camera moves in a rounded tracking path as if the viewer is hiding and observing the event. The long shots/medium long shots highlight the physical distance and detachment between the couple with the two characters in different visual planes. For example, as Giovanna stands against the bar, the low-key lighting highlights her figure, which is visually fused into the bar area, with the shelf, and the settings that are lit behind her, establishing a sense of authority and ownership of the space. Conversely, Gino, foregrounded on the side of the frame, is out of the light, shrinking into the dark. 

Giovanna is always framed, often within a door frame. It implies a sense of security and shelter, denoting her determination to manage her life better with Gino. Gino, however, constantly moves, underlining his drifting nature, his anxiety and instability, his uneasiness within a secure and enclosed space. Giovanna’s movements always follow Gino as if she is chasing and pushing him towards the edge. They “float” within the space, but never physically unite or stay together – there is always a physical gap between them filled by lines, objects, bars and shadows on the walls, symbolizing the psychological gulf between them. The lines and shadows create an alternative sensational sphere for them, graphically dividing the physical space and splitting them into separate realms as if they can never attach to or access the other’s space and reach mutual understanding, even if physically close to one another. 

Moreover, the use of chiaroscuro to create silhouette dramatically increases the noir-ish mood and the traumatic, turbulent atmosphere as faces, costumes, and emotional expressions are obscured but for her dress swinging and his cap pointing, as if they are merely moving entities within the space, no different from the lifeless objects in the room; their shadows lose a sense of human identity and emotion, but are full of traumatic, threatening interaction with the space, shaping merely “faceless” affective expressions.

Visconti repeatedly uses a quasi-symmetrical spatial construction to show the tension between Gino and Giovanna. As the first costumer arrives after they re-open the bar, Giovanna rushes upstairs on the left side in the background, leaving Gino surrounded by blocks of tables and chairs on the right. The pillar in the middle splits them, implying one is hiding in her private space while the other is left to an entangled and desperate confrontation with the outside world. As Giovanna runs up the stairs, Gino slowly moves to the left, leaning against the table and lowering his head. As in the previous shot, they are visually and symmetrically split, creating a sense that no matter how small their mutual space, they can never enter each other’s space. Graphic confinement and intense spatial movement connote their psychological distance. As Gino runs upstairs after the customer leaves, the camera shoots him in a high and slanted angle behind the handrails. He moves but is still confined by the lines of tables, chairs, shelves, walls, bars and shadows, giving a sense of inescapable imprisonment within the bar, and symbolically, within Giovanna’s hysterical control. 

In comparison, their second return to the bar after the party highlights Giovanna’s desperation and emotional turmoil. This time, Gino goes upstairs, leaving Giovanna in the kitchen, another space that links the private and the public. This is where Giovanna first meets Gino, a space marking their romance and desire; but now, it represents the opposite, her isolation, despair and her return to the tiring domesticity that she hoped to escape. As Giovanna switches on the light, the bottles and crockery surrounding her lend a quasi-romantic, visually erotic air to the scene; however, as she sits, light from above dims to highlight her dull work cleaning the plates. From this point to where she finally collapses, Giovanna is engulfed by her surroundings. Especially, in the final shot of the scene, the plates, glasses, and pots are clearly lit, while Giovanna herself fuses into darkness, signalling her forthcoming doomed life. 

The exterior of the hotel is also significant in reflecting the correlation between humans and architecture. While Giovanna is sunk in the kitchen, Gino comes outside. The long shot from a high angle sets him against the building, denoting his insignificance amidst a vast background of decay. The building looks as if it is going to be demolished. The impression of loss, bleakness and bitterness is so aggressive that it outweighs human presence. Giovanna appears from the door as Gino walks out of the screen, as if they are strangers whose lives are distinctively split, expressing a sense of melancholy dislocation. In this scene, the cross-cutting between Giovanna’s indoor work and Gino’s outdoor wandering articulates the spatial tension, the sense of being entrapped by life and choice. Henry Bacon, in his book Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, argues that the “shabby interiors have gradually become a metaphor for Giovanna’s suffocating situation, whereas open air has been the realm of Gino’s freedom”.7 However, the open-air space can also represent confinement. While Giovanna is exhausted in the bar, Gino wanders off on the motor road, but the open space does not convey a sense of freedom: we see Gino aimlessly walking along the road from a voyeuristic POV behind the blanket. The colour and the balance suggest that a vast outside space is even more threatening, as if the blackness of the blanket is visually and metaphorically swallowing the tiny presence of Gino.  

There is another space in the film that is placed in between the public and the private: the hotel rooms that Gino shares with people other than Giovanna. Gino is associated with two types of “outside” hotel rooms, the travelling street artist Spagnolo’s (Elio Marcuzzo), and sex worker Anita’s. Both are moments of escape from Giovanna. The room shared with Spagnolo is dull, plain, and confined, visually similar to Giovanna’s. The two men are always in close physical proximity, Spagnolo encroaching on Gino’s space just as Giovanna did in the aforementioned bar scene. However, the hotel room is much darker than the bar creating a sense of stasis for Gino. The chiaroscuro is extreme, making Spagnolo a threatening presence. He appears in shadows between sharp and shadowy patterns, his gaze directed towards Gino in a fragmentary, disturbing way. The danger and threat for Gino has queer associations echoing Michael Warner’s idea (Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory) that queer was seen at the time as “the context of terror and the site of violence”.8 

In contrast, Anita’s room is glamorous, bigger, visually deeper, and sensuously romantic. It allows greater freedom and movement for Gino, constructing a paradise-like space away from Giovanna’s aggressive desire and Spagnolo’s homosexual advances. His movement guides the viewer to observe the delicately and lavishly constructed space: the sheer, veiled dress, the floral wallpaper, the luxurious makeup cases, perfume bottles and handcrafts all depicting sensuality. Gino seems curious, excited, and joyful here, behaving differently to how he performs elsewhere as if it opens up a new world, an alternative, illusory space and possibility for him, away from his traumatic and frustrating reality with Giovanna. 

There is a shot where Gino faces the camera while Anita’s face is reflected in the mirror, paralleling the scene where Giovanna’s body is reflected in the mirror. Unlike Giovanna’s the mirror space, where she is closely attached to domesticity (i.e. her bed, the curtains, pictured above), Anita’s reflection is surrounded by portraits, implying that Anita’s presence is also a “fake” presence (pictured below), conveying a sense that although Gino is physically in Anita’s space, he cannot grasp her or allow her to share his feelings. Gino is always positioned beside the women’s mirrored and framed images but never properly faces them. It implies Gino’s problematic intimacy with the women – they are in closed relationships but he never feels secure or attached to them. In this case, hotels are the places for close physical relation (sexually), but never shelter the true emotion of the disoriented man.

Obsession

While hotel spaces for the protagonists in Obsession are defined by constant contact with other spaces, such as the outdoor landscape or other hotel rooms associated with parallel characters, most of the drama transpires inside the hotel in Consequences. The film is about loner and businessman Titta (Toni Servillo) who spends the last years of his life in a hotel, living a ghostly existence, avoiding human contact. His life course is completely changed when his spiritual anomie is replaced by passion and love when he meets bar attender, Sofia (Olivia Magnani). Consequences is set in a dramatically heightened world, a remote but familiar space, pending and relational, defined by duration and different levels of attachment. Space and architecture outweigh the human, signalling what Yvette Blackwood, in her book Parallel Hotel Worlds, calls the “death of character and the birth of space,” the hotel “becoming a character in its own right”.9 

The use of windows and frames plays a significant role in the film. Titta is always alone looking out through windows. At the beginning of the film, Titta and Sofia’s characters are introduced in the hotel lounge in which everyone in the shot is looking outside the window in a fixed position as if time is frozen and the shot is a painting-like picture. Titta is in the foreground, doubled-framed by the reflection on the wall from a mirror behind him. The suggestive spatial construction at the beginning of the film sets Titta in a distinguished, isolated position, creating an enclosed, confined tone for his space. There are several montages of Titta positioned against the window in the hotel: when he watches people playing basketball outside through his window, the outside subjects are out of focus, creating the impression that liveliness and human interaction are inaccessible for him; and as he smokes by the window at night, his reflection appears on the window, framed within the confined straight lines and rectangular shapes. Nothing can be seen of the outside other than his own doubled self, the warm and illuminated inside space highlighting his silhouette in reflection, conveying a state of puzzling and problematic confrontation with his true self. When he stands by the window in the empty lounge watching the night street, he is shot from outside with the reflection of the traffic light on the window veiled by the curtains that restrict him inside, cutting off the space around him. The vertical lines on the curtains, the horizontal lines on the wall behind him, and the red signal of the traffic light evoke a cold, fixed and unmovable atmosphere both physically and emotionally. 

Comparably, in the daytime, Titta’s “window space” is always in connection with other people: he calls his family in front of his window, talks to his brother by the window in the lounge, and talks to the bankers when looking at the window. However, although human relations are depicted around window spaces, human emotions are not. In the scene where he calls his family, he sits in a corner of his room by the window, the parallel straight lines on the wall, wardrobe, window, and heater silently but forcibly pushing him towards the edge and shrinking him into his surroundings, echoing his isolation at the loss of family connection and of human emotions. In the scenes with his brother, Titta is always shot from the other side of the window at a distance: when they talk in the lounge after the brother’s arrival, they seem to be in a quasi-separated space, Titta always looks away. The window frame in the middle visually splits them while the frames on the wall enclose Titta in a triple-frame, creating a sense of two-dimensionality. This plasticisation of his presence makes him even more isolated and untouchable. Before his brother’s departure, they stand outside by the window, and the camera films them from inside at a distance, capturing them within a window frame obstructed by tables and chairs in the lounge as if the viewer is watching a film-within-a-film or looking at a photograph. 

A similar effect is also seen in the long take towards the end when Titta walks back to his room in the corridor, the camera following him behind the windows. He is constantly stuck in frames and out of focus at a distance, never allowing the viewer to see his true emotions. This spatial arrangement re-conceptualises cinematic space and underlines a potential distance and detachment between the viewer and Titta, creating a dislocated and estranged mood not only through the diegetic space and action, but also through the viewing experience emphasised by the architectural design. The hotel, his everyday living space, narrates a sense of fear of attachment and sensational violence. 

The Consequences of Love

The hotel space underlines Titta’s suffering in the face of touch, attachment, personal and impersonal connections. He avoids eye contact when encountering others; he is obsessed with his seat in the bar, pained and oppressing when others occupy it; the action of holding the phone when Titta calls his family, the only way that he contacts them, makes him irritated and disorientated. These everyday live and immediate forms of contact become a source of pain and afflict discomfort. There is a striking scene where Titta uses a stethoscope to hear the conversation next door. This impersonal touching and connection to others pathologizes human relationships as if human interaction is a disease. Here, the hotel becomes a dysfunctional space. 

The hotel space – the home away from home – is an estranged proximity, a paradoxical belonging and isolation. It is a merely quasi-homely space with a momentary illusion of security and settlement easily provided by any anonymous public home space. For Titta, the anywhere-habitable hotel is turned into a non-place where the sense of true attachment is never experienced in the anywhere-home. 

As in Obsession, aside from windows and frames, mirrors also play a significant role in the film. When Titta is alone in a space, the mirror functions as a doubled, enlarged space of expansion. For example, the body-length mirrors in the corridor and the hotel restaurant reflect off-screen spaces and enhance the illuminated lighting and luxurious setting. Mirrors function as a medium for visual spectacle, highlighting the visually erotic, the aesthetically seductive objects within the space, inviting viewers to question whether the visual and spatial seductiveness hints at something deeper. In the corridor, the mirror shows Titta’s reflection walking in the opposite direction to his body against the entangled, maze-like background, indicating his conflictive internal state in which his thin ghostly presence battles against his vital repressed passion (pictured above). 

The mirror in the hotel restaurant does not reflect Titta but, rather, traces of off-screen space. It creates a visually symmetrical effect with Titta aimlessly wandering off in the middle, implying that he is lost in the mechanical structure of his world in which each step needs to be calculated without any personal emotion. Furthermore, the burgundy and golden hue of the empty restaurant adds to the uncanny atmosphere, simultaneously threatening and seductive, foreshadowing Titta’s passionate but ultimately tragic love-affair. 

The Consequences of Love

The elevator is key to the hotel space. It is an enclosed, confined space where strangers momentarily encounter each other. Titta’s encounter with the cleaner in the elevator appears repeatedly with close-ups of the cleaner looking at Titta’s face in the mirror. The plain background, the intensified frame and colour, and the two people’s cold and strange expressions evoke Titta’s active refusal of emotion and connection (pictured above). The elevator also connects the private (rooms) and the public spaces (the lounge). As the door opens, we see Titta’s face in the same mirror but obviously smaller in scale compared to the deep space of the lounge (pictured below). The manager on the right side is also reflected, echoing Titta. The fact that people can only mutually exist in this ‘fake’ presence rather than as real presences highlights the nature of postmodern alienation and the coldness of humanity. Furthermore, the straight lines and frames of the doors, windows and mirrors act as boxes that fold people into different spaces, creating the effect that although they are all in the same physical space, their emotions, connections, and human relations split and differentiate them into different realms. 

The Consequences of Love

Titta always appears in the mirror when he interacts with Sofia. For example, when Sofia blames him for ignoring her and when Sofia gets changed behind the bar, we see her and Titta in the mirror positioned next to each other. They are framed in a close and tight way, highlighting their potential attachment and relationship. However, they are never in the same focus and are constantly split by the lines of the mirror or the curtain. This indicates that although they are in relationship to each other, when compared to others, there is still a barrier between them. Furthermore, that Sofia always confronts Titta’s mirror reflection implies that, for Sofia, Titta is an ungraspable and mysterious man and that the gulf between them can never be overcome. The mirror spaces, therefore, establish a sense of “entrapment, of intolerable closure, of space without exit, finally of breakdown,”10 highlighting the complex binary and self-confrontational nature of this theatrically heightened, claustrophobic world of repression, alienation and displacement. Hotel mirrors and glass enable people to see the “spectral companion” – the chance-met strangers or the estranged self; they “construct a fragmented space, the invisible dimensions”.11 They are the special equipment in hotels that expose and visualise the otherwise undiscerned.

The relationship between people’s movement, affection and the hotel space, as explored in Obsession and Consequences, depicts human emotion and psychology spatially through the diegetic topography. In Obsession, the contrast between the confined, enclosed inside domesticity and the vast but desperate outside space evokes inaccessibility, disconnection, and the unbridgeable gap between the characters and their desires, underlining that family, security, relationship, and morality are unreachable in this marginal, and near devastated world. In the sensational landscape of dissatisfaction, different characters’ functioning of desire and their inescapable doomed fates are depicted through space. Apart from the domesticity and natural landscape, the hotel space is also one of the most crucial spaces that link the two films. In Obsession, hotels act an alternative space for escape; whereas, in Consequences, such a claustrophobic realm is the only space that imprisons the protagonist, indicating his traumatic connection to displacement, despair, and the lack of human emotion. Through doubling, extreme lines and shapes, Sorrentino creates a graphical site of dystopia that strains and, to some extent, stems internal chaos, de-personalisation, and sensational violence through “excess, masquerade, and the artificial nature”.12

Endnotes

  1. Robert Davidson, Hotel: Occupied Space (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2018); Amanda Holmes, Politics of Architecture in Contemporary Argentine Cinema (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Claire Thomson, Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration) (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).
  2. Marcia Landy, Fascism in Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931-1943 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p.280.
  3. Giuliana Minghelli, (2008), “Haunted Frames: History and Landscape in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione,” Italica, 85: 2/3 (2008), p.173.
  4. Alfio Leotta, “Do Not Underestimate the Consequences of Love: the Representation of the New Mafia in Contemporary Italian Cinema,” Italica, 88:2 (2011), p.290.
  5. Vittorio Albano, La Mafia nel cinema sicilano: da In nome della legge a Placido Rizzotto (Manduria: Barbieri, 2013), p.111.
  6. Summer Mullins, “Desiring desire in Visconti’s Ossessione,” Journal of Romance Studies, 12:2 (2012), p.33.
  7. Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.20.
  8. Michael Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.xxvi.
  9. Yvette Blackwood, ‘Parallel Hotel Worlds,” in Moving Pictures/Stopping Places, p.278.
  10. Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), p.59.
  11. Thomson, p.107.
  12. Eszter Simor and Daivd Sorfa, “Irony, sexism and magic in Paolo Sorrentino’s films,” Studies in European Cinema, 14:3, (2017), p.208.

About The Author

Nashuyuan Wang has been working as the media journalist for the European Times and Chinese weekly, the judge and film reviewer for Beloit International Film Festival, cultural writer and PR manager for Chinese Food Festival, and the Cultural Media Chief Editor at FusionPay.

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