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Netflix’s paranormal Belgian drama ‘Hotel Beau Séjour’ only looks like prestige TV
Kato has been murdered, but she doesn’t remember how she got here or who killed her.
A teenage girl, Kato Hoeven (Lynn Van Royen), wakes up alone in a hotel room. She discovers her lifeless body in the bathtub, covered in blood. Kato has been murdered, but she doesn’t remember how she got here or who killed her.
With the help of five local villagers who can still see her—her alcoholic father (Kris Cuppens), the corrupt police chief (Johan van Assche), a sexy ex-mental patient (Joren Seldeslachts), her shy best friend (Joke Emmers), and the stepsister in love with her ex-boyfriend (Charlotte Timmers)—Kato will search for the man responsible.
Too bad Hotel Beau Séjour is a great premise for a television show, trapped in a preposterous mess.
The first five episodes of Beau Séjour, now streaming on Netflix, are engaging and addictive. There will be inevitable comparisons to fellow streaming genre fare like Stranger Things. Van Royen could be Millie Bobby Brown’s older sister. As another pale androgynous hero in search of her purpose, she’s terrific. But TV nerds are even more likely to recall The Returned, the oft-adapted French drama about zombies who inexplicably survive a bus crash. Like that show, the moody Belgian import deals powerfully with the loneliness of the afterlife. To be undead is to watch your friends and family grieve your memory and adjust to life without you. Kato attempts to offer solace to her disconsolate mother (Inge Paulussen) who cannot feel her ethereal touch.
Beau Séjour does a ripping job of building atmospheric tension, and it certainly looks great. The cinematography, courtesy of Anton Mertens, marries the cold monstrosity of Michael Haneke efforts like The White Ribbon to a film noir sensibility. The Flemish countryside of Beau Séjour is marked by long shadows and secrets around every corner. To uncover the mystery of her death, Kato must wade through the underbelly of small-town life—like early David Lynch with fewer severed limbs.
But if the program does a fine job of setting up the pins, it knocks them down with the grace of a drunken labrador on rollerskates. Halfway into the 10-episode season, Beau Séjour trades elegy for soap-opera dramatics, and it quickly turns into Peyton Place with subtitles. Every character is 1) having an affair, 2) carrying the lovechild of her best friend’s father, 3) dealing drugs, or 4) a potential murder suspect. For an average teenage girl with a unique haircut, it seems as if there isn’t a single person in town who didn’t want Kato dead, whether it’s a promiscuous hotelier hiding an important clue (Barbara Sarafian) or a local drug kingpin (Tom Jansen) spotted with her on the night of the murder. Even the elderly crossing guard probably has her reasons.
With every false alarm Beau Séjour burns through, the show becomes increasingly ridiculous. Remember that scene in National Treasure where the heroes are looking for a giant boat in the Arctic Circle and very quickly discover a breastplate revealing the ship’s name buried in the snow? There a number of such moments in Beau Séjour, including a helpful hint as to the murderer’s identity scribbled on the inside of an empty coffin. (Sorry, but “Subaru” won’t become the new “Rosebud” anytime soon.)
The killer’s eventual motivation—which is so laborious it has to be explained to the audience repeatedly—doesn’t make nearly as much sense as Beau Séjour thinks it does, but nothing in Beau Séjour adheres to logic. The characters all behave atrociously to each other for no reason except that the writers need more “gotcha!” twists to reveal at appropriate intervals. Kato’s formerly institutionalized love interest also happens to be her ex-boyfriend’s cousin. When her new beau’s mother (Tiny Bertels) spies the ex getting it on with the dead girl’s conniving stepsister, she uploads a video of the young lovers porking to YouTube. Why would a grown woman commit a sex crime just because she can? Your guess is as good as mine.
All of this would be easier to stomach if it the program were built on a stronger foundation, but Beau Séjour’s myriad faults have a bad habit of drawing attention to the cracks in its conceit. Watching this show means suspending an extraordinary amount of disbelief: Kato is not only able to communicate with her inner circle. She can also touch them. These interactions, though, appear to take place on a different plane of reality than the rest of the world around her. For instance, if Kato were to pick up the phone, call the police, and reveal the name of her killer, bystanders wouldn’t be able to see anyone on the phone. Law enforcement would simply hear static. But ghost world has its consolations: Not only can Kato have sex (score!), an alternate universe motorbike is magically at her disposal (and it never needs gas).
Hotel Beau Séjour is far from the first promising Netflix show to devolve into hokum at its midway point. The OA, released on the streaming platform in December, was as ambitious as it was laughable. Beau Séjour doesn’t contain anything quite as risible and cringe-inducing as that show’s finale—in which a choreographed team of heavenly bodies thwart a school shooting with interpretive dance—but it gets damn close.
Throughout the show, the federal agents assigned to the case (Katrin Lohmann, Mieke De Groote) attempt to figure out what led to Kato’s murder. They discover nude photos on her phone, commenting that maybe she wasn’t so innocent after all. Claiming that they were meant to be “artistic,” her mother defends her honor: Her daughter isn’t a slut, she’s an aesthete. Beau Séjour spends a great deal of time attempting to determine how XTC got into the girl’s bloodstream (was she a whore and a druggie?), but far less effort is expended on the fact that it doesn’t matter. Kato could go to bed with all the sweaty, mullet-donning cokeheads in the world and she still wouldn’t deserve what happened to her.
Beau Séjour might look like prestige television at first, but it’s just trash in a better looking package. Do yourself a favor and don’t stick around long enough to unwrap it.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.