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‘The Palace’ Review: Roman Polanski’s Latest Feels Like a Middle Finger to the World

Setting aside all the necessary caveats about art and artists, Roman Polanski’s “The Palace” throws a greater fact into stark relief. For all the digital ink we spill, journalists and critics are more often than not responsive to wider industry forces, and in Polanski’s case – as in the wider European industry — something has definitely shifted.

Heck, you could even the place the specific date to Feb. 28, 2020 – the night Polanski’s Venice Grand Jury Prize winner “An Officer and a Spy” won best director at France’s Cesar awards, prompting boos, a few notable walkouts, and a clash between protesters and police out in the streets. Two weeks prior, the French academy’s board of directors resigned in scandal.

So the fact that Polanski’s 2019 film has yet to find U.S. distribution is not a particular surprise; the fact that his follow-up, “The Palace,” has had similar tough luck in his home country of France marks a genuine bombshell. More to the point, the director’s changing circumstance feels directly relevant to the cast he could assemble for this humorless black comedy, and to the build of unyielding grotesquery that makes the film feel like a giant middle finger to the world.

On paper, the formula is tried and true: here is another, caustic skewering of the 1%, split between the pampered brutes who sodden a luxury hotel, and the beleaguered staff forced to clean up. You’ve checked into “The White Lotus,” you’ve traversed the “Triangle of Sadness,” but you’ve never heard the same song in such a shrill pitch as in “The Palace.”

Nor will you, at least not legally, for reasons elucidated above.

The year is 1999, the date Dec. 31, and the world is on the precipice of collapse thanks to that dastardly bug known as Y2K. But until that foregone and ever-nearing apocalypse arrives at the stroke of midnight, the work falls to the hotel manager Hansueli Kopf (Oliver Masucci). You can imagine the type: He’s obsequious with the guests, unrelenting with his staff and only able to function thanks to a steady stream of booze, downed early and often, whenever no one is looking.

Spend a day in his shoes and you’d need to get plastered too. From behind the check-in desk high in the Swiss Alps, he must wax poetic upon the youthful beauty of aging facelift addicts before securing a safe place for five Louis Vuitton valises stuffed with greenbacks and deposited by a gang of Russian brutes. Then, to top things off, he must finally figure out just what to do with a live penguin delivered at the express request of the hotel’s most affluent guest.

That would be Texan billionaire Arthur William Dallas III, played with good-ol’-boy swagger by a waxen John Cleese. (Given the near absence of name actors from the cast, the fact that both Cleese and co-star Fanny Ardant share similar criticisms of the current social climate does not seem like a simple coincidence.)

Dallas is 97 years young, ready to kick off a new year with 22-year-old bride, Magnolia (Bronwyn James). For her part, Magnolia stands to become her beau’s sole inheritor — provided he makes it through the night. That shouldn’t be a problem, right?

A few rooms over, the agitated Marquise Constance Rose Marie de La Valle (Ardant) has made the horrific discovery that her dog has, ahem, opted to relieve himself on her bed. Could it be the diet of caviar she feeds the pooch, or could it be worms? How can she know? Without a veterinarian present, the hotel’s resident plastic surgeon will just have to make due.

And then there’s Mr. Crush — an uncanny and unsettling Mickey Rourke, looking as if he’s wearing a latex mask of his own face, and sporting a Boris Johnson wig for good measure. He might be the most demanding guest of all, especially given the fact that he turns up without a reservation, demands the best room, and draws in an excitable Eastern European caricature claiming to be his son, who in turn brings his whole brood in tow.

Oh yeah, he’s also looking to use the anticipated Y2K breakdowns for a get-rich-quick bout of financial fraud that never quite makes sense.

Of course, nothing’s really supposed to make sense here. Brightly lit, captured by wide lenses, and contrast-boosted to the max in post, the hotel gives off an air of garish unreality — all the better to sell the satire, I suppose. But just what is supposed to be satirized? Certainly not the clients, who, to a person, never act or scan in any recognizably human manner — and probably not the staff, who mostly do their best to wrangle-in the chaos.

Co-written by Polanski, “EO” director Jerzy Skolimowski (with whom Polanski co-wrote “Knife in the Water” back in 1962) and Ewa Piaskowska, the script offers the weakest stabs at irony. It juxtaposes the empty hysteria around Y2K against the rise to power of Vladimir Putin — who did indeed take over from Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999, but one cannot find a larger point beyond that.

Perhaps there is none beyond the simple desire to make filmgoers squirm, trapping them in a garish getaway filled with grotesques, and watching everyone get drunker and louder and more unpleasant until the clock strikes, the fireworks hit, and little is resolved but the audiences’ resolve to check out of this hotel and never return.

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