Something strange happens to most of us when we walk into the lobby of a hotel. Usual rules of life don't always apply. Inhibitions are sometimes lost. No wonder, then, that the hotel has provided a continuing source of inspiration for some of the world's best directors. And none more so than Sofia Coppola, whose new movie Somewhere has just won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice International Film Festival.
Somewhere is the story of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a Hollywood actor who lives in the fabled Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. He appears to have it all - the fast car, the women, and, of course, the room service. There is, naturally, a catch: the trappings of fame aren't necessarily making Marco happy. It takes the arrival of his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) for him to begin to understand what is important in life.
If all this sounds just a little familiar - the lonely actor, the hotel, the identity crisis - then it should. These, of course, were some of the themes of Coppola's most successful film to date: Lost In Translation. Set in the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, a baffled, alienated Bill Murray groped his way through jetlag with the help of Scarlett Johansson's similarly vulnerable character. It earned Coppola an Oscar nomination - and while she's batting away suggestions that Somewhere is a return to safer, more familiar ground after the critical mauling received by her screen version of Marie Antoinette, the connections are obvious.
And the location isn't a coincidence. Coppola is genuinely fascinated by hotels. "I spent a lot of time growing up, living in hotels when I was on location with my dad [Francis Ford Coppola]," she said to the Venice press pack last week. "A hotel is a world in itself, and the people who stay there are always interesting, so I like hotels for settings. It's an impermanent place, and the people I am interested in are in a moment of transition."
Unlike the Park Hyatt in Tokyo (which apparently now receives plenty of requests from its guests to sit on the same bar stool as Bill Murray), Chateau Marmont is already a fixture of Hollywood film legend - not least because the Blues Brother John Belushi died in one of the rooms. But while film fans might like to stay in either of these hotels, they'd probably think twice before checking in to probably the most iconic overnight resting-place in movie history: the Bates Motel, which is featured in Psycho. If of course, they ever could: it was a figment of Alfred Hitchcock's imagination - constructed on set in California, and said to be modelled on an Edward Hopper painting called The House by the Railroad.
The Bates Motel is significant, though, because it marks the first time the hotel itself became a character in cinematic storytelling. Until 1960, hotels were usually glitzy or relaxing locations that simply provided the backdrop for the story - Greta Garbo delivered the famous quote "I just want to be alone" in the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel (1932), and Bing Crosby sang White Christmas in the Columbia Inn. But in Psycho the very function of a hotel is key to the story, not just in terms of plot development (Janet Leigh's doomed character is on the run and needs somewhere to stay overnight), but in the unspoken suggestion that establishments such as this are supposed to provide a safe haven - not final resting places.
Many credit Hitchcock with inventing the modern horror thriller with Psycho - and in so doing encouraged the idea that the strange, not-quite-at-home feel to a hotel could be synonymous with chills rather than thrills. Would Stanley Kubrick's The Shining have had such an immense impact set away from the strange surroundings of the isolated Overlook Hotel? This shadowy building infects Jack Nicholson's character, an off-season caretaker driven completely insane by the place's ghostly presences. One of the most disturbing movies of its time, it's something of a relief that only the first, exterior shot is of an actual hotel; The Timberline Lodge in Oregon. The rest was filmed in studios in the UK. But The Shining works because its setting is a closed environment, cut off from the world and far from home.
The hotel isn't always a cipher for alienation, loneliness or horror, however. Its purpose - the bringing together of hundreds of people - can also spell joy. Who can forget Kellerman's, the fictional resort in the Catskill Mountains, where a young teenager began one of the most famous romances in movie history? And the hotel in Dirty Dancing was crucial to the film in more ways than one. The entire cast stayed on set - the Mountain Lake Resort, Virginia - during rehearsals and legend has it the dividing line between the script and real life was so blurred that extra-curricular dancing enhanced the chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. To such an extent, indeed, that the director brought the improvisation she saw out of hours into the film. The resort, somewhat touchingly, still holds Dirty Dancing weekends to this day.
Dirty Dancing is a classic holiday romance film. And hotels can be the backdrop to love stories - in Maid in Manhattan Jennifer Lopez plays a single mother working as, yes, a maid in a hotel who meets a senatorial candidate who is way above her station. Classic cases of mistaken identity ensue - it's not the greatest of films, but it does at least attempt to understand the paradox that is present in any luxury hotel; that many of its staff are on the breadline.
Of course, hotels are also enclosed worlds, where people act in a way they would never usually behave if the hotel door were left open. And strange behaviour is certainly the domain of The Hangover. One of the finest comedies of the last 12 months plays fast and loose with life behind the scenes in a hotel; presumably we're not meant to ask how Mike Tyson's tiger got in and out of Caesar's Palace. But the reason the film worked far better than it would have done in, say, the suburban home of one of the members of the stag party is down to that same concept: people act differently in hotels. They do things they wouldn't otherwise do because they're not constricted by the reality of their lives at home.
All of which suggests hotels in movies are more than just signifiers of a certain kind of luxury, style and wealth. Although, of course, that helps. The Fairmont in San Francisco (Vertigo), The Plaza in New York (North by Northwest, Crocodile Dundee) and, essentially, almost any hotel with a fountain in Las Vegas, have become as famous for the films set in them as their rooms. It is genuinely possible to request Room 414 at the Degli Orafi in Florence and enjoy the same Room with a View that Merchant Ivory Productions used in their 1985 adaptation of EM Forster's romantic novel. But, as we reported in The National recently, it's too late to stay at the Hotel Des Bains, which was immortalised in Death in Venice. It is scheduled to be converted into luxury apartments.
Coppola's Somewhere, though, has pricked the attention of the Venice jury because it skewers the inherent strangeness and bizarre opulence of hotel life. It's probable that after the general public see the film, there will once again be a rush on rooms at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. But anyone desperate to check in would do well to remember one thing. Sometimes, very, very odd things can happen once the room door slams shut.