Review by Sean Boelman
Several documentaries have explored the meaning of important landmarks in the arts scene, but few have explored them as ambitiously as Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt’s Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel. And while the film’s ideas are fascinating, it’s not always as intriguing in execution as it could have been.
The movie explores the history of the legendary Chelsea Hotel through the eyes of the building itself, which is nearing the end of a renovation that marks the end of an era. It’s an interestingly impressionistic approach to this story, and it’s certainly refreshing to see that the film isn’t reliant on talking heads.
One of the biggest issues with the movie is that it feels surprisingly cold and distant in its approach. It’s understandable that there is going to be a bit of rigidity in a film that is about a dilapidated building, but its attempts to connect with the people who lived and live there consistently come up short.
There are some interesting ideas here about gentrification and legacy, and the perspective from which the movie explores these themes is innovative if not entirely effective. These are issues that have a very human impact, and doing it from the perspective of the building really eliminates this.
Those portions of the film which tell the story of the modern-day residents of the building are interesting, but have a very forlorn feel to them. It’s definitely sad watching as this place that has become so ingrained into their lives changes for better or worse and makes you think about the things that we take for granted.
However, the movie also has the side talking about the past and the glory days of the hotel. The way in which it switches between the nostalgia and the pessimism about the current situation can be quite jarring, especially since the runtime of the film is so short, clocking in at only around an hour and twenty minutes.
Still, from a technical standpoint, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. Both the way in which it focuses on the architecture and the unique ways in which it incorporates archive footage are great. It’s definitely a very artistic approach to the story, which is welcome given how standard many films in this genre are.
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel deserves a lot of merit for not taking the easy route to tell its story, even if a lot of its ambitious swings end up being misses. It’s more interesting to think of what this could have been than what it is.
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is now in theaters and on VOD.