Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Grade: A
Cast : Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson.
Director: Wes Anderson
Free Access Granted

Can we just sweep words like “quirky” and “whimsy” under the bed? I’m thinking “dollhouse” could also burn to the ground, or get tossed out the window like Jeff Goldblum’s unlucky cat.  It’s like Wes Anderson committed a crime for having an imagination. Are these words descriptive, or backhanded punishments that reduce a great director to a cinematic sideshow? 

The pleasant acceptance of The Grand Budapest Hotel marks the end of the annoying-but-predictable revelation-backlash-“return-to form”-celebration cycle that serves as drama for film critics. Budapest reveals Anderson to be what he has always been – one of American cinema’s five or so best comedy writers (along with Sturges, Wilder, Allen, etc.) and the best filmmaker among them.

Anderson described the childhood love story of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom as “a memory of a fantasy.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is the opposite, a fantasy borne out of memory.  It moves backwards in time (1985, 1968, 1932), as it widens and thins in aspect ratio (1.85, 2.35, the boxy 1.37). Over a long, brilliant dinner in 1968, a young author (Jude Law) listens to Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham)tell the story of how he came to own the fading gem, starting from his time as a penniless bellboy known as Zero.

It was in 1932 that he first came to the plump pink palace, built into a hillside in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka.  Once a postcard of pretty snow and skyscraping pastries, Zubrowka stands on the edge of fascism and war. Upholding the values of a gentler time is the hotel’s four-star concierge Gustave H. Immersed in a purple waistcoat, with lungs that pump romantic poetry, Gustave believes in discreet customer service (sometimes of the naked variety) as a sacred virtue and – in the face of looming barbarity – a code for living. Gustave is what many Anderson heroes are – a well-dressed man (or fox) at war with his times.

The death of an octogenarian conquest (Tilda Swinton, making the most of a few moments) leads to a battle over her will and a priceless Flemish painting, Boy with Apple. Framed for murder by relatives, Gustave and Zero give the ol’ 1-2-3 skidoo to the authorities, leaving a trail of perfume and civility along their travels. The film springs forward with madcap doings for Gustave and Zero, with a secret monastery, a bobsled chase, a prison moat of crocodiles, and a birthmark the shape of Mexico.  

For traditionally solemn Ralph Fiennes, Gustave H is the sort of bright comedic role that points an actor in new, unrealized directions.  Anderson regular Willem Dafoe nearly steals the show as a leather-clad henchman with no regard for the sanctity of human life or human fingers. The film’s real star is the hotel itself – the lavish crimson carpets, symmetrical dining tables, towering  murals – a spacious resurrection of European bourgeois luxury (imagined and realized in an abandoned German department store).  Anderson’s art direction and set design (brought to life by production designer Adam Stockausen and cinematographer Robert Yeoman) have become such a critical battlefield that sometimes we forget to marvel at them.

As inspiration Anderson has been referencing Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of the thirties whose writings suggested the decline of Western civility during the rise of fascism.   While I take his word, such a source clearly complements themes from 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. As proposed inspirations go, Blimp has the not-entirely-inconsequential benefit of having been named by Anderson as one of his favorite films. He goes so far as to import its most famous line (“The war starts at midnight!”).

The Archers’ aging British colonel starts his film as an outdated fool, but a review of his past reveals a man motivated by chivalrous and humane values of another age. When the film slowly returns to the war years, the satire becomes a lament for lost civility.  Like Anderson, the Archers invented their worlds with a handmade quality – emotionally expressive color schemes, hand-drawn mountains and valleys, English sets and models that could become Germany, France or a mountainside palace in India.

For Anderson, Gustave and his era are outlets for his romantic idealism, even while his plight suggests darker layers to the past.  Scrambling to put the world back together again is both an angelic longing and a tragic waste. Ultimately our encounters with the past are only the way to define the present. If Anderson is fascinated by disappearing grandeur, it’s because we sense its lack in modernity.  

I wouldn’t say The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches the first rank of Anderson’s films (in which I would list Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Moonrise Kingdom). But it isn’t far off, either.  While the dialogue could sharpen its step, it makes up by being tons of fun. Most of all it’s an indication of the middle-age mastery of his notable style – an artist of originality and vision at his point of greatest command.

No comments: