The title of Hotel Congress (which opened Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto) is a double entendre. It name checks the dilapidated establishment in Tucson where it was filmed, while slyly hinting at what the two people staying there – a married man and married woman who are not married to each other – might get up to in their sparsely appointed room.
"I think that being away from familiar things makes you reconsider your emotional patterns," says Nadia Litz, who wrote the script and co-directed the film with her partner, Michel Kandinsky, and also stars opposite Philip Riccio.
"[The characters] start off using the hotel as a way to be someone else with someone new, and in the end the bubble of the hotel allows them to actually be honest in a way that their lives at home haven't allowed them to be."
An articulate and subtly romantic drama about potential infidelity, Hotel Congress was funded under the auspices of the 1K Film Challenge, in which five Toronto filmmakers were selected to make movies on a shoestring. It's an interesting original story, but Litz – who previously directed the acclaimed and witty short How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You, in addition to acting in several key Canadian indies – isn't all that interested in talking about money (or the lack thereof).
"It should never be a source of pride that we didn't have a lot of resources," she says. "I don't mind restrictions in filmmaking that lead to more energetic decision-making and original choices."
Hotel Congress does betray its modesty in some ways, mostly in that it only features two characters: Litz and Riccio's maybe-wannabe lovers seem as isolated in the hotel's hallways as castaways on a desert island. But that sense of seclusion and intimacy also heightens the emotional stakes that finds a certain amount of poetry – visually and verbally – in the protagonists' entirely self-willed situation.
"When I sat down to write the script, I knew that the characters couldn't talk to anyone else for logistical reasons. 'How liberating!' was our response."
Liberating, but also intense: Hotel Congress was written in three weeks and then filmed over the course of three 12-hour days with a skeleton crew that decamped to Tucson knowing just how narrow the margin for error was. "You don't have to mince words with your partner," says Litz on the subject of working so closely with Kandinsky on such a demanding project. "In making something this contained, the most assured way to spend the process is to collaborate with people who you trust and feel you can say anything to."
That sense of openness and honest exchange is largely what Hotel Congress is about, and while Litz's script has its satirical aspect – that the characters are named Sofia and Francis (after the Coppola clan) is just one of several movie-industry in-jokes – it also takes the combination of desire and vulnerability driving its characters seriously.
"Michael and I are engaged conversationalists in our personal lives, and I think that conversation is a sexy and alluring thing, but the conversations are fiction," says Litz. "They are imaginings. I'll contend that in some ways Sofia and Francis are different sides of my own belief system, or at least my own way of reasoning out issues. One side is romantic, and the other side is cynical."
It's that intriguing and ultimately harmonious sense of equilibrium that makes Hotel Congress so enjoyable – and which keeps it standing upright on its modest foundations.