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'The Royal Hotel' and Patriarchal Smog
Kitty Green might be my new favorite writer/director.
“The patriarchy is a smog we all breathe,” the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham once declared. With just two narrative features under her belt, the Australian writer/director Kitty Green has already proved herself more adept at dramatizing this concept than any other filmmaker working today. She has also established herself as a monumental talent whose films should incite cineastes to dance in the streets, even as they expose our most shameful communal shortcomings.
Green began as a documentarian before transitioning into fictional (or at least semi-fictional) films with 2019’s The Assistant, which starred Ozark’s Julia Garder as Jane, the titular aide to a heard-but-never-seen movie executive who was clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. The picture follows a single work day in Jane’s life, from the time she leaves her modest Astoria apartment for work to the time she returns, and in superficial terms, at least, very little happens; large swaths of screen time are devoted to Jane carrying out standard secretarial tasks like making photocopies, coordinating schedules, and taking lunch orders. These humdrum entry-level responsibilities are occasionally interspersed with more troubling duties that strongly suggest her boss is trading on his immense power for sex: An earring inexplicably found on the floor beside the executive’s couch, a beautiful young woman from Boise hired, flown to New York, and put up in a fancy hotel despite having no prior work experience, “general meetings” with scantily-clad actresses that seemingly last for hours, a constantly-furious wife who can never gain direct access to her husband. Worsening Jane’s discomfort with these events is the way her boss belittles her intelligence over the phone and then “apologizes” by implying he intends to help her career, the casual nature with which her male co-workers react to, and sometimes even joke about, their employer being a sexual predator, and, not least of all, the fact that even more-veteran women within her office seem only too-willing to look the other way (one female co-worker, sensing that Jane is disturbed by leaving an actress alone with her boss behind closed doors for a lengthy period of time, tells Jane, “Trust me, she’ll get more out of it than he will”).
Jane never actually witnesses her boss doing anything improper - there’s no big dramatic moment where she disrupts an assault - and the story’s climax, such as it is, comes when Jane tries to report her boss’ behavior to an HR rep, who quietly persuades her to drop her potentially career-damaging complaints while acknowledging that her suspicions are correct and assuming that she is concerned only for her personal safety (“I wouldn’t worry, you’re not his type”). The HR rep, played by Succession’s Matthew MacFayden, achieves this without so much as ever raising his voice; on the contrary, he’s concerned and complimentary, like a high school guidance counselor, and there’s only one moment where he seems even the least-bit angry or menacing.
A lot of viewers found the movie boring; I admit that I myself didn’t completely “get it” upon a first viewing. Having now watched it again, it’s clear to me that the film’s seemingly-mundane nature is the whole point. This is, truly, the “banality of evil”: An office full of people treating carnal impropriety as just another part of their job, and a young woman with nary a true ally in sight lulled into complacency with threats against her own burgeoning career. There has been no better dramatic illustration of how powerful men like Weinstein got away with their crimes for so long than The Assistant.
Green’s new film, The Royal Hotel (inspired by the documentary Hotel Coolgardie and co-written with Oscar Redding), is, in a literal sense, louder and faster-paced than The Assistant. But it’s no less complex. It once again stars Garner, this time as Hanna, an American who is vacationing in Australia with her friend Liv (Jessica Henwick, Glass Onion). In need of spending money before visiting Bondi Beach, they accept jobs as bartenders at a pub in a remote mining town, the clientele of which is predominantly male, entirely drunk, and unabashedly horny. Hanna is uncomfortable immediately, but Liv convinces her that it’s safe to stick around for a few weeks while they make some cash.
Like The Assistant, the world of The Royal Hotel is perpetually clouded by patriarchal smog. Hanna and Liv’s predecessors at the pub are a pair of young British women who are only too happy to get sloppy drunk, dance on the bar, flash their breasts, and sleep with customers; furthermore, they seem earnestly sad to be moving on. The only regular female patron, Glenda (Barbara Lowing), encourages Hanna and Liv to display cleavage as a means of garnering bigger tips, while the bar’s cook, Carol (Ursula Yovich), simultaneously berates the owner (an almost-unrecognizable Hugo Weaving) to do right by the girls without ever appearing to be concerned for their safety. And when Hanna earns the nickname “sour cunt” because of the infrequency with which she smiles, Liv tells her not to be offended, because the Australians’ use of the word “cunt” has different cultural connotations.
But The Royal Hotel is even more provocative than The Assistant with regards to its intricacy and unwillingness to provide the audience with simple black and white morality. At the start of the film, we meet Hanna and Liv as they’re dancing on a booze cruise; a young man approaches them and starts talking to Hanna, and on the one hand, it appears as though the ladies don’t want to be bothered, but on the other hand, it is a booze cruise, which seems like about as proper a place for a man to hit on women as could exist. Indeed, moments later, Hanna is making out with the guy - so was his behavior inappropriate or not?
Meanwhile, one regular a the bar, Matty (Toby Wallace), is young and handsome, but he introduces himself with a lewd joke intended to embarrass Liv. Still, they agree to accompany him to a remote swimming hole, and later, Hanna willingly kisses him - but when he tries to advance things, it takes her saying “no” a few too many times for him to get the message. Yet another regular, Teeth (James Frecheville), seems both shy and well-intentioned, but may, in fact, be possessive, while the bar’s most outwardly-intimidating drinker, Dolly (Daniel Henshall), is rarely anything less than friendly, even as his smirk and perpetual stare feel unsettling.
Green uses this ambiguousness of character and intention to masterfully play with audience expectations. We’ve all seen a million movies kinda like this, which explode into tales of sexual violence and gory revenge masquerading as female empowerment… but it’s hard to tell which of these men may actually intend to harm Hanna and Liv and which are just socially maladjusted and hopped up on testosterone, and repeatedly, scenes that you think will inevitably end in rape do not.
By constantly undermining and manipulating the tropes of standard thrillers, The Royal Hotel forces the viewer to wrestle with their own values and assumptions, and to acknowledge the thin line between the ethical and the corrupt. As Amy Nicholson noted in her review of the film:
“Over and over, we in the audience find ourselves wanting to shout advice at the screen like we would in a regular horror movie: laugh at that joke, don’t laugh at that one and for god’s sake, stop doing shots. When we pause to examine our own reactions, we get walloped by Green’s heaviest point. Why are we micromanaging the victims but never yelling, ‘Leave them alone!’ at the men?”
For this reason, I think The Royal Hotel will be especially challenging for any forward-thinking and introspective heterosexual man: Even if you’ve never committed sexual assault (and hopefully you haven’t), you can’t help but question your own behavior and wonder if you’ve ever made a woman uncomfortable with comments and actions the problematic nature of which didn’t even occur to you at time (and, spoiler alert, you almost certainly have). In fact, I’d argue that any man who doesn’t feel the need to reflect after watching The Royal Hotel is in denial, unable and/or unwilling to face some distressing truths about themselves and the very notion of “masculinity.” For women, danger lurks around every corner, and that danger is us and the environment of moral quicksand (or, if you prefer, fog) that we have created.
Some critics - even ones who liked the film - seem to have taken issue with The Royal Hotel’s ending, which is considerably more grandiose and pat than that of The Assistant. I concede that some of the iconography, which focuses on the literal preservation of venomous phallic symbols, is a bit on-the-nose. But a quieter conclusion would also be, in an odd way, too reassuring (especially given that the danger in The Royal Hotel is far more literal and omni-present than the danger in The Assistant). A big part of Green’s point is that micro-aggressions pave the way for macro-aggressions. If we ever truly wish to break the cycle of violence and oppression against women, at some point, we’re going to need to engage in macro-resistance.