This picture, such an epic flop that director Roy Andersson quit making features for the 20 years that followed its release, is not really that awful upon reexamination. Despite it’s heavily uneven tone and utterly perplexing last third(which I’m going to mostly ignore here), Andersson gets a lot right.
This has to be one of the most accurate filmed depictions of working food service in a small town ever made. Andersson is a master at setting and maintaining tone; the slow pace, dull colors, and silent strangeness of hotel dining room and kitchen all help evoke the oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that dominates such a place. The constant repeated joke of someone claiming they’re only ‘passing through’ threatens to grow tiresome. But if they weren’t, their spirit would be crushed absolutely. In the first third, there are also several absolutely brilliant visual gags.
As the film moves on, Andersson abandons the restaurant, and unsurprisingly the film loses its momentum, eventually regaining it somewhat with an (intentionally) awkward and passionless romance, but then losing it again in an awkward third part that tries to become a gangster film or something. Andersson was in person at the screening I attended and practically disowned the piece. His modesty aside, there’s a great deal here to recommend. When Andersson is on, he’s really on, and that’s more than can be said for most filmmakers.