Mid-Series Review: Patriarchy and Misogyny in Hotel Beau Sejour

For those craving the second season of the French show Les Revenants to finally appear on Netflix, or the Australian Glitch, and similar horror/mystery pairings, Hotel Beau Sejour is a nice rest stop and well worth a watch in its own right with just a touch of European film noir. For lovers of European horror and mystery and “film noir” atmosphere, Hotel Beau Sejour is a must see with slowly building tension. The pace, like its many European cousins, is much slower relative to American television allowing the viewER to fully settle into the quirks and peculiarities of a small Belgian town.  With two hotshot female detectives on the scene, the traditional “male detective partner pairing” is upended, echoing recent shows such as The Bridge, The Killing, and The Fall, all of which have women as investigative leads.  However, it’s very clear all women in the show, including Kato the ghost, still exist in a male-dominated world.

Hotel Beau Sejour begins with Kato, a young teen waking up from her own dead body in the titular hotel, which at the time of her death has been closed for renovations. Clearly, this was not a “nice stay” for Kato. She discovers very quickly that not only has she been murdered by someone in her small Belgian community, her conscious form now exists in some kind of otherworldly plane.  “Ghost Logic” is also employed brilliantly in the show, and is satisfying for even the most discerning viewer; Kato realizes that while she can manipulate physical objects, they do not generally move in the realm of the living. This allows her to investigate her own murder, and she witnesses her own autopsy, rifles through detectives’ purses, and tries to find out as much as she can. She also discovers quite quickly that a few people can interact with her: to them, she and all her actions are as “real” as those of anyone else’s. Clever “ghost logic” tricks abound:  any manipulation she creates in the real world like picking up papers, firing a gun, or writing, are only visible to the five people who can see her and interact with her. This extends to photos of her, or anything she manipulates; the five who are connected to her see her, or the items she has manipulated in photos, while everyone else sees nothing.

But perhaps most compellingly, the show’s most clever trick is in using the viewer’s tendency to align with the protagonist’s perspective, regardless of what – or who- it is they are watching- in this case, it’s a young girl who has been raped and murdered with a hammer to the back of her head. As a result, when Kato discovers that she was raped by witnessing her own autopsy, the audience is forced to consider such a discovery must feel like. Similarly, when characters who love Kato have questions like “how could she get herself into this mess?” “Why was she at Hotel Beau Sejour?” “Why did she take a ride with a strange man?”, the viewer feels a twinge of defensiveness on Kato’s behalf. While the questions come from a place of deep grief and prevention-oriented perspectives from Kato’s mother Kristel and her father, Luc, Hotel Beau Sejour is not a Law and Order: SVU episode with a cold body that cannot defend itself. Indeed, Kato answers honestly and clearly, as any teenager would: “I don’t know! I don’t remember the last 24 hours”. But even without answering, even her consistent presence in the show immediately negates the questioning: how can anyone suggest that a young girl was responsible for her own rape/death?  Her personhood, validated consistently throughout the show leaves the audience with only one possible, instinctive thought when victim-blaming questions arise: “Whatever happened was clearly not her fault, and such a line of questioning is futile in finding the person responsible.”

This tendency to victim-blame, particularly when victims or survivors are women and girls is a direct corollary of rape culture, where men’s violence is never attributed to men, and always attributed to how poorly a woman or girl defends herself. However toxic masculinity in the show is shown in layered ways, including instances other than explicit physical or sexual violence: For example, early in the show, Kato’s mother, Kristel is trying to decide on music for Kato’s funeral with input from Luc, Kato’s father (her ex-husband), as well as her husband Marcus. Luc and Marcus take it as an opportunity to have a pissing contest about who “knew Kato better”. Luc insists on a song from her youth, signifying his bond with his daughter, and Marcus insists on a song that she loved more recently. The viewer watches how Kato’s mother exasperatedly tries to facilitate civil conversation between two men arguing over her dead daughter, and the emotional burden and exhaustion of her role as “caught between two men” who seemingly have no idea how to regulate their own emotions and desires. Never is there a question, for example, as to what Kristel would have wanted to hear at the funeral.

Later the viewer finds further solid reasons to dislike both these men’s actions, and the impact they have on Kristel. Marcus, for example, allows his daughter Sofia (Kato’s step-sister) to take over Kato’s motocross lessons, and her old motocross outfit without consulting Kristel or Luc. When questioned by Kristel and Luc about this, Marcus simply retorts “well the lessons were paid for anyway” with little regard to how Kristel might feel that her stepdaughter is wearing her dead daughter’s clothes. Meanwhile, Luc, who is one of the few that can interact with Kato, eventually facilitates conversation between Kato and Kristel; he convinces Kristel that Kato is indeed “around” by revealing information that only Kato and her mother knew. Initially, the reunion is a touching scene for members of this family, but Kato carefully points out that this might be giving her mom false hope. Luc shrugs off Kato’s concerns – instead, he later blatantly lies to Kristel saying that Kato wants them to re-unite as a couple. Whatever bond exists between father and daughter and Luc and Kristel is tarnished when Luc manipulates Kristel by pretending Kato is in the car with them, and pretends to convey Kato’s wishes. Since Kato cannot directly interact with her mom, the viewer immediately realises the serious manipulative threat Luc poses: he can make up anything he likes about what Kato is saying or doing, and her mother will likely trust him in hopes of communicating with her daughter. Through Luc’s selfishness, we see how he is not above exploiting the special connection he has with his daughter in order to manipulate his ex-wife, and that he abuses the trust both women have placed in him.

The show is consistently peppered with the misogyny inherent to the police force – and echoes the misogyny of women’s every-day experiences. Alexander Vinken, a crooked small town cop with a crooked mind consistently makes his female subordinates uncomfortable, and tries to give his superiors Detectives Marion Schenider (who is a queer girl’s dream), and her partner Dora Plettinckx a hard time. Schneider and Plettinckx have been called in specifically to investigate Kato’s murder. As they balance the bureaucratic pressures of their boss and the open misogyny and incompetence of the mostly-male police force they are forced to work with, their roles on the show completely reverse the usual (and exasperating) dynamic of “incompetent woman boss supervising brilliant male subordinate” present in irritating and overrated shows such as House MD, and The Mentalist.

The explicated misogyny in the show is not limited to men’s performative violence, or their casual manipulation of women; indeed, there are at least two instances of women in the small Belgian community engaging in slutshaming. The first is how women in the town discuss Melanie Engelenhof, owner of the Hotel Beau Sejour, who has “a reputation” as a woman who sleeps around. None of the men she sleeps with are called into question. Similarly, when a video goes viral of Kato’s sister Sofia in intimate moments with her boyfriend Leon, it is Sofia who is called a slut, while Leon experiences no consequences whatsoever by his peers. Even Melanie, an adult, who experiences slutshaming by others in her community does not miss the chance to slutshame Sofia.

Violence in the show escalates in episode 7 when Marcus breaks into Luc’s office at the local school where Luc is the principal. Here, he turns a picture of Luc upside down, and proceeds to urinate all over Luc’s desk, turning their previous verbal pissing contests into a real one. At this point in the show, viewers familiar with the nature of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and toxic masculinity might remember the various instances in which Marcus has undermined Kristel’s authority and independence. Though initially he appears innocuous, the few scenes where he yells in frustration are increasingly unfair to Kristel.  For me, watching this instance instantly shifted my earlier theories on who murdered Kato. I haven’t finished watching the show yet, but my money is on Marcus due to the blatant disrespect he has shown for other people. The show’s creators seem certainly capable enough of knowing that the vast majority of cases of violence and rape against women occur by people who are known to them, and by people within their family.

Sometimes, with classic TV shows that focus on rape/murder victims, viewers are inundated with graphic violence done to women until they are simply “women’s bodies” or “bodies”. The focus is often on the culprit. While questions of “Who was she?” might have existed initially on the viewer’s part, classic TV shows generally drown that out with “Who did it?” and “How are her family members doing?” In Hotel Beau Sejour, we find out who the victim was.  Lynn Van Royen who plays Kato brilliantly conveys the experiences of a teenaged girl to allow the audience to fully appreciate her personhood.  Rape and murder in the show are not plot devices in the show to further a male storyline of vengeance or honour: they are events of extreme violence that someone experienced for no reason other than men engaging in violence. In showing how Kato navigates her “life” (death?) now, the show is also careful to never turn Kato into just the trauma she has experienced.  As a ghost, she continues to experience love and sex. She is angry about what happened to her. She is angry at her parents sometimes as any teen is, even as she loves them. She has friends who are there for her, and also friends who are not. She is sometimes rash, sometimes cautious. And like all survivors and victims, she is uniquely human, whole, and complete.

Hotel Beau Sejour is a compelling take on violence against women, with the unique perspective of a young teen trying to navigate life after death as she investigates her own rape/murder. Uniquely, her perspective is less passive subject and “victim” and more “active participant in her own investigation”. The show’s unique perspective of a young girl navigating the aftermath of extreme violence inflicted on her compellingly uses women’s perspectives to show how women respond to toxic masculinity in their lives and in this one rare case, their death.

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