Malaise is a hard rut to get out of. We all slide too far into the numbing sameness of life sometimes, perhaps because we’ve been overloaded and are trying to pare things down or we’re simply confused about where to go next. It’s a disconcerting feeling that can make life seem slightly out of reach, even as we’re living it. Most of us get out after a time but others get stuck, the malaise slowly becoming their life.
That’s where Margaret finds herself, in a malaise of her own construction, living an anonymous life among the anonymity of Tokyo. She is one of the eponymous lost girls, and although we meet several, she is the only one we truly learn about. The audience is as stuck with Margaret as she is with herself, but unlike her, we are searching for a way out.
A moody, meandering movie, Lost Girls and Love Hotels is a shaggy dog story without the humor or the dog (although cats do make an appearance). One expects the movie to be about Margaret getting out of her rut, but no one is in any hurry to move her along, instead of letting her staggering from one empty scenario to another. The malaise is palpable, which in and of itself is a feat, but many viewers will be grasping for something, anything to take from this quagmire, and much like Margaret, they will find very little.
Handsomely Captured Malaise
If mood is truly the point of Lost Girls then the movie succeeds with flying colors, as director William Olsson takes this tale of ex-pats in their chosen home and keys in on the place they’ve become lost in: the simultaneous expanse and suffocation of Tokyo.
His Tokyo (or Margaret’s) is one of cramped dive bars, one-room apartments, and manicured hotel rooms designed for brief trysts. It’s not grungy; in fact, there’s an antiseptic beauty to the whole thing, the bright lights always offering some new place to get sucked into, the grime only apparent if you slow down enough to really look.
But Margaret and her friends are not about slowing down or getting invested. They bounce from place to place and do brief cleanups in between, washing away whatever mess they’ve made the best they can, trusting that the city will wipe away the rest.
Even when something permanent does threaten to enter their lives, it’s as if the city will eventually take it away. When Margaret first spots an unusually alluring man a train rushes through behind her, which in the squeeze of the city seems inches from her back. The obvious metaphor, the one of sex, fits right in with what we’ve seen of her frequent patronage of the city’s love hotels, the ones with rooms available by the hour. There’s also the fact that this man is destined to be a more permanent fixture in her life than any of her previous rendezvous, pushing her out of her chosen isolation, but there’s also the threat of him leaving just as quickly as he derails her, the city sweeping him away along with all the rest of her life’s detritus.
It’s moments like this that emphasize how well Olsson grasps the material, surely helped by having Catherine Hanrahan adapt the screenplay from her own book of the same name. The setting and theme form a thick web, impossible to untangle, and he takes every opportunity to put that on the screen.
A Girl Needing Interruption
Where Olsson is let down by Hanrahan is in finding somewhere to take all this meandering to. Malaise is a fine mood but it’s hardly a story, and the good stories about these wayward periods of life find a way to encapsulate them without getting stuck.
Hanrahan doesn’t take Margaret on enough of a journey, instead of keeping her treading for far too long in the sameness of her life. The movie becomes repetitive, and not in a way that pays off. It quickly becomes clear that she’s drowning out life with things that don’t matter, like with friends who don’t actually know each other, jobs that provide no fulfillment, and sexual encounters that don’t last the night. It’s all a perfectly fine place to start your story but not a place you can stay in for very long, and the few things she adds in to give the story some momentum are too lightly placed.
This man that actually comes back should be the driving force, but the relationship never pops. Where exactly it goes wrong is hard to pin down; Alexandra Daddario captures Margaret’s masquerade to hide her dull boredom well enough and Takehiro Hira as the new man has a menace that belies much more to his character, but there’s never much between them. Underwritten relationship? Possibly. Lack of spark between actors? Maybe. A combo of both? That’s where I’d put my money.
Without this subplot taking off, even the mild developments to Margaret’s character rings false. She quickly becomes a bore, a messy bore, sure, but a bore nonetheless. A character within the movie even comments on it: “It doesn’t make you special or interesting,” he says, in reference to her penchant for mild bondage but coming late enough in the film to feel like a much broader take. “I know,” she acknowledges.
I wish the movie had known that, too.
Conclusion: Lost Girls and Love Hotels
A snapshot of malaise that goes on far too long, the movie soaks in mood when it should have floated through it. Even a mood piece needs an arc or some point to all its wallowing, a fact that Lost Girls seems to have forgotten. Without that, the movie can’t be saved, not even by its thoughtful, handsome production.
Have you seen Lost Girls and Love Hotels? Did you find there was the meaning behind the malaise? Let us know in the comments!
Lost Girls and Love Hotels will be available in the US on digital and on-demand on September 18th, 2020.
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