Canine copulation with a CGI penguin? Roman Polanski’s The Palace is an utter dog’s dinner

Godawful: a scene from Roman Polanski's Palace
Godawful: a scene from Roman Polanski's The Palace - Malgosia Abramowska

In 2003, when Roman Polanski won his Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, the filmmaker was unable to collect the honour in person. Having fled the United States 25 years previously to avoid a custodial sentence for statutory rape, he would have been arrested on his return, and so the trophy had to make its own way to him in Europe.

Unless they start giving out awards for things like Earliest and/or Most Frequent Checking of Watches By Audience, Most Despair-Inducing Use of John Cleese, or Least Amusing Sex Scene Between a Dog and a Penguin, such logistical niceties are unlikely to be much of an issue when it comes to The Palace. Polanski’s 23rd feature, which premiered this evening at Venice, is surely the worst of his career: a soul-throttlingly crap hotel farce set at the Gstaad Palace in Switzerland on New Year’s Eve 1999, where lots of rich, demanding guests are causing havoc.

Perhaps Polanski cast Cleese in a talismanic capacity, given his own past expertise in this genre. Here he doesn’t play the hotel proprietor but a prattling nonagenarian tycoon who is celebrating his first anniversary with his much younger wife: providing he survives until the bells, the pre-nup conditions will have been met, and his fortune will also be hers. Mickey Rourke – who these days is apparently moisturising with creosote – also appears as someone called Mr Crush, who may or may not be a famous wrestler (the script doesn’t really make clear what he is), and also may or may not have an illegitimate Czech son, who arrives unexpectedly, hoping to introduce his unglamorous family to his celebrity dad.

Elsewhere there are some loud, obnoxious Russians, with four suitcases bulging with currency in tow; and some loud, obnoxious plastic surgery veterans, who buzz around their beloved doctor like wasps. Fanny Ardant’s dog has bowel problems. An adult film star breaks his nose while skiing. Mickey Rourke opens a bottle of champagne and the cork knocks his wig off.

The eve-of-the-21st-century setting initially suggests an overarching satirical point will eventually be made – and at one point Polanski drops in a news clip of the then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s resignation broadcast, with a fresh-faced Vladimir Putin assuming power in his stead. But no: beyond a few squawked half-gags about the millennium bug it proves to be irrelevant. Perhaps the script, credited to Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska, was originally conceived back then and belatedly exhumed.

Poking fun at women with severe plastic surgery and elderly men taking Viagra: the humour certainly feels at least 23 years past its sell-by date, though less in the sense of “you can’t tell these jokes any more” than “why would you want to?”. Midway through the act of making love, a couple become stuck together, and the manager (Oliver Masucci) ends up having to pry the female partner off the top. Why did they get stuck at all, though? Unless I’m missing something, that’s just not how it works. But then, nothing in this godawful thing does.

Screening at the Venice Film Festival. A UK release has yet to be announced