‘Dreaming Walls’: Film Review | Berlin 2022

Directors Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier’s documentary looks at the current state of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, formerly home to many of the most important artists of the 20th century.

The new documentary Dreaming Walls features a dinner shared by residents of New York’s famous and famously under-construction Chelsea Hotel, as they debate whether or not long-gestating renovations to the hotel will impact its reputation as a den of sex, drugs and freewheeling counterculture. One woman is sure that the new management will bring new occupants and a new overall attitude, but another argues that the Chelsea’s bohemian excess is baked into its gestalt.

“Gestalt” is such a generally good word and it perfectly embodies what Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier capture in Dreaming Walls. The 80-minute film isn’t an overview of the Chelsea and its history of iconic and notorious residents, ranging from Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg to Madonna, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Instead, the directors deliver the gestalt of the Chelsea, the overall sensation conveyed by the building, its past and its scaffolded present. It’s a ghost story haunted by fame and celebrity, but ultimately much more grounded and universal than that.

Dreaming Walls

The Bottom Line

A poetic look at limbo as a piece of NYC real estate.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Directors: Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier

1 hour 20 minutes

I’d add that “gestalt” is an appropriately frou-frou term for a dreamy documentary made by Belgian filmmakers about an American residential landmark set to premiere at a film festival in Germany.

Those interested in the tangible history of the Chelsea — built in the 1880s, elevated to cultural landmark status in the 1940s and 1950s, elevated to literal NYC landmark status in the 1960s and under various forms of construction since multiple waves of new owners took over in the 2010s — will probably be frustrated by van Elmbt & Duverdier’s film.

That doesn’t mean that the directors don’t tease. The title of the documentary is made literal as van Elmbt & Duverdier project footage of many of the Chelsea’s most recognizable residents against the walls of a complex in chaos, sometimes over completed surfaces like the brick rooftop chimney and sometimes over the partially removed walls and surfaces within the building.

But this isn’t a documentary with talking heads telling funny stories about people you’ve heard of. That’s the past. It’s a documentary about what remains, whether that’s the exposed wiring and insulation in the hallway, the partially diaphanous plastic sheeting currently taking the place of doors, or the current residents, who are like the human embodiments of the construction happening around them, remnants tied to a glorious past and waiting out an uncertain future.

Many or most of the permanent residents of the Chelsea have either reached settlements to clear out — new management wants to make most of the building into a luxury hotel — or they’re in the middle of some legal action to remain, all prolonging the renovation project. We’re introduced to a particularly dogged cast of characters including former choreographer Merle, who wanders the hallways with a walker alternating between deep conversations with the construction workers and general calisthenics; wire sculptor Skye, whose visiting daughter — young people at the Chelsea are mostly confined to archival footage from the ’60s and ’70s — reads a Dylan Thomas poem aloud; and performance artist Rose Cory, who parallels her own transition to changes to the Chelsea.

We also meet Zoe and Nicholas, a married couple who seem to have some connection to a tenant board, and Bettina Grossman, whose particular Chelsea story — she started sleeping in the hallway because her apartment became too full of her art — became the stuff of NYC legend.

The directors avoid overly concrete trappings of documentary filmmaking. Sometimes the subjects introduce themselves and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we learn details about their tenures in the Chelsea and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we see their apartments in claustrophobic depth and something we might just see them staring wistfully out the window. More frequently, it’s just impressionistic snapshots of life in a decaying building, with Michael Andrews’ calming score connecting the haunting silhouettes moving through darkened passages; the slow navigation up and down a staircase that once appeared in a Mariah Carey video; the snippets of grainy imagery from when the Chelsea was a hub of artistry and joy, instead of people barely holding onto a place they once treasured. It’s a peace that’s interrupted by construction sounds or by Zoe’s irritated conversations with other tenants or unseen figures of authority.

The film treats the Chelsea as a poetic manifestation of limbo, each character contemplating mortality and immortality in their own way. There’s been talk of the grand reopening of the Chelsea for years, but to watch Dreaming Walls is to wonder if this is one of those projects that will never be completed, the hoists and scaffolding remaining in place forever, like the multiple wall murals painted by past residents.

If Dreaming Walls overstayed its welcome — like several of these residents are trying to do — its ruminative pacing would probably drift into the realm of the sluggish. And it’s easy to imagine some viewers simply preferring the less figurative, more literal version of a Chelsea documentary rather than what slowly eases along in a state of fin de siècle mournfulness some 20 years after the end of what was probably the Chelsea’s representative century.

For a place with so much sensationalism in its DNA — this is, after all, where Nancy Spungeon was found murdered, among other mysteries and tragedies — Dreaming Walls opts for and achieves a quiet power. It’s not the individual elements. It’s the gestalt.

Full credits

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Directors: Amélie van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier
Producers: Hanne Phlypo, Quentin Laurent
Executive producer: Lori Cheatle
Cinematographers: Joachim Philippe, Virginie Surdej
Editors: Alain Dessauvage, Julie Naas
Composer: Michael Andrews

1 hour 20 minutes