Taj Mahal (2015) (Chillerpop at Telluride)

(Source: Telluride Film Festival 2015 guide)

Writer-director Nicolas Saada offers an incisive, innovative perspective on the November 2008 Islamic terrorist attack on the luxury Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. He focuses on Louise (Stacy Martin, fresh from Von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC), a pretty 18-year-old French girl separated from her expat parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) and trapped in her room in the hotel’s fourth floor, unable to get even the slightest perspective on events, coping with the sudden incomprehensible fact of violence and the likelihood of her imminent death.

-Excerpt from the Telluride Film Festival 2015 guide

I just attended a screening of Taj Mahal  at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. I’m terrible at plot recaps and I let the blurb above do my work for me. That said, I can’t let it do all the work.  Innovative? Perhaps. Incisive? No.

Taj Mahal was technically well-made, memorable and harrowing.  Yet I somehow ended up frustrated.  On the whole, it was not a meaningful film about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

This had nothing at all to do with lead Stacy Martin, who was excellent as Louise, a teenage European girl from an affluent family.  It’s easy to get hateful about what’s perceived as a bored, privileged, slightly disdainful character, but just remember what being 18 means.  You weren’t all that different (on the bored, disdainful side, not the privilege).

My problem with the film started with the first act.  It’s a slight PC soapbox on my part, so be warned.  It’s only natural that India would be alien to a young white woman walking its streets on her own, and I have no doubt that street harassment of women occurs (I myself have witnessed it in both American and Western European cities).  Still, a great many scenes before the start of the terrorist attacks just bring you menacing and scary images of ‘the locals’ juxtaposed against a refined European family and a vulnerable, pretty young girl.

Ultimately, I had to wonder why this story is told from the point of view of fictional attractive, white affluent Europeans.  Are western audiences not capable of connecting to the story of, say, an Indian hotel worker in this same situation?

My problem with the film then morphed.  As the attacks in the hotel progress and young Louise is hiding in her hotel bathroom, I found myself enjoying a tense, indie horror movie of the home invasion sub genre.  These terrorists suddenly became something akin to Jason Voorhees, or the killers in The Strangers, Vacancy or The Purge.

Don’t get me wrong, those scenes were the most interesting and riveting parts of the film.  But we are taking about a real-life atrocity, a historical event.  I had to snap myself out of experiencing horror-movie thrills.  And that’s problematic.

The final act turned into a refined, European response to, say, a Die Hard film.  I can’t elaborate further than that.

The only moment in the film that held any meaning was the denouement.  SPOILERS: back in Paris, some time after the event, Louise turns to a fellow hostage in the hotel siege to “talk about it” and he refuses.  That moment felt very real to me and addresses the annoying aspects of American grief culture and media saturation of catastrophe and atrocity.

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