By Rory Winston
Without warning, the baritone voice had gone off in my head:
“From the People who brought you Cannes Jury Prize winner, Queen Margot, and the Academy Award winner A Man and a Woman, comes an all new rollicking adventure for cinephiles and travelers alike: Sebastopol 123. With a cast of thousands, this inspired romance is guaranteed to be the sleeper hit of the decade; literally. With music by Ennio Morricone and sets by Philippe Maidenberg, Sebastopol 123 is Paris like you’ve never seen her.”
Walking past the lobby’s ‘coming soon’ posters and the pop corn vending machine, my thoughts were interrupted once again. This time by that other voice – the relentless amphetamine-induced one that had plagued the last moments of every trailer throughout the 1980’s: “Rated PG. or R or anything you make it. Not coming to a City near you. ‘Winner of the Luxury Hotel Awards, 2014’ – Don’t miss.”
As the bellhop grabbed our bags, I kept wondering if this hotel needed Cahiers du Cinéma -approval and what the late great Roger Ebert would have thought about an elaborate homage to films in the form of a centrally located Parisian hotel. Yes; despite the catchy title, Sebastopol 123 was not some gun-toting remake of the Billy Wilder’s 1961 classic 123. Instead, it was probably the most interesting theme-based design hotel in all of Paris – one whose address was its name.
Although stars of architecture and design don’t elicit the same form of public attention as box-office draws in tinsel town, there’s no denying the reputation of Philiippe Maidenberg when it comes to reinventing spaces. To simplify his vision, let me begin with describing a dream-related phenomenon with which many of us are familiar: ‘We open the front door of a long forgotten classroom from childhood only to find ourselves in an airport terminal; we board a boat for vacation and suddenly notice that we have entered our work place, suitcases and all.’ This surrealistic form of disorientation is something Maidenberg uses to his advantage. But his intention, as I see it, is not merely to provoke a strong emotional response. Rather, he wishes to imbue otherwise limited spaces with an unlimited number of entertaining and meaningful associations. Managing to keep the integrity of a hotel – as an idealized platform for comfort and escape – and the integrity of the discipline from which he borrows (by adequately researching other fields instead of just randomly juxtaposing odd elements), Maidenberg does the unimaginable: he creates transcendent spaces that aren’t contrived. In movie lingo: he makes blockbuster hits with an indie edge.
Like any good auteur, Maidenberg relies on his choice of cast and crew. In this case it meant bringing in different collaborators for each of the floors being designed. Each floor was an independent episode, and it was up to Maidenberg to find continuity.
Having enlisted Ennio Morricone for the first floor, it would have been easy to succumb to some Spaghetti Western motif. Eschewing jejune antics, however, Maidenberg opted for a design-tribute to soundtracks and – more poignantly – an overture for the whole hotel. With wallpapers replicating scores (transcribed by the composer’s own hand), a monochromatic scheme playing off the instruments employed, and active earphones installed into the headboards, the first floor is soundscape incarnate. It prods our imaginations into accompanying decades of music, allowing us to wander between the notes. A drum roll for the legendary composer…? – How about a drum for a night table, instead.
As for the second floor, it is a velvet textured dreamscape with pinks, grays and mauve. It is a stage worthy of the César-awarded French actress, Elsa Zylberstein whose history in dance and theatre inflects the approach. A soft afterglow lends the impression of a fading spotlight. to mark the final moments of some half-forgotten performance. The fleeting echoes of once thunderous applause rustle the veranda’s curtains. The third floor is less ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’ in nature. It required the active participation and vision of the lauded acting/writing couple Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri of Smoking/No Smoking and Under the Rainbow. Although the dark wood and red curtain ambience adhere to today’s ‘no smoking’ policies, there is a smoldering mood – one alluding to the married film couple who had spent their lives enveloped in a rainbow of love, respect and (as the script excerpts and posters demonstrate) a shared delight in theater.
Switching genre; going up! The fourth floor is sensuality with flourish, élan with restraint and mostly, costume drama coerced into contemporary form. In short, it is the world of Danièle Thompson, the inimitable screenwriter behind La reine de Margot and Cousin, Cousine. Chiariscuro plays an important role as light and dark tones are vividly demarked with crimson velvet and wood playing off a mosaic of photographs. Entering the 5th Floor means entering the POV of Claude Lelouch, a prolific director who’s often relied on actual locations to substitute for sets. This vividly graphic black and white world is one in which backlighting pours over screens with large-scaled reprints of dailies. Complete with director’s chair, the mood is one of improvisation-meets-exacting procedure – a process greatly indicative of Lelouch. Here, our memories become celluloid on a cutting room floor and it is film which is real. We have become screen-tested people in a world of suspended disbelief.
On the sixth floor: a punching bag with red leather gloves, a Palme d’or embroidered with that odd feminine touch; the whole scene screams: Jean-Paul Belmando. It’s only fitting that the film icon who started with French New Wave cinema should be the hotel’s crowning touch. With a projection room on the lower ground floor named after the legendary director Gérard Oury (real life father of fourth floor, Danièle Thompson), and an indoor terrace overlooking an outer wall of celebrated actors done in stencils, Sebastopol 123 is an auteur’s paradise – one that could have Jean Luc Godard musing on whether the hotel is a ‘tribute to’ or ‘a next step in’ the development of ‘the seventh art’.
In 2006, Emmanuel Benhiby took 20 directors, and had each make an episode for the film Paris Je t’aime. More recently, Maidenberg constructed a similar anthology without shooting a single frame. His Sebastopol 123 could easily have been called Cinema Je t’aime. It’s likely that this is one of those films that many will want to see over and over again.
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