Wes Anderson at his very best
Thanks to 20th Century Fox Australia, we had the chance to experience Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel before its Australian release. This is our review of the film, but – as usual – no matter what we say, we recommend that you still go to your local cinema and see the film because there is no better critic than yourself!
If you believed you were finished with Wes Anderson movies, you were very wrong. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) felt off. The Darjeeling Limited (2009) left many viewers cold. It has been said that a good film shows without telling. Audiences left 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom firmly convinced that the prototypical new school Wes Anderson film is one that shows without feeling. The movie was so rigidly styled, so severe, that it shut us out completely. It was everything many couldn’t stand about his movies post-Rushmore (1998) – with kids. There was more care taken with the costume design than with the screenplay; more personality in the camera moves than the characters. It was like peering into a cinematic dollhouse and being unable to reach in and touch anything. Very visually stimulating… for a while. Then just plain boring. Improbably, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013) has won audiences world-wide back. The eccentric style of the American director’s earlier features is still here – in fact, the movie might even be his most eccentric yet – but this one has a magical quality that was missing in some of his other films. Skipping over the overwrought Moonrise Kingdom, with its too-perfect dollhouse sets and stone-faced kiddy cast, The Grand Budapest Hotel captures the bizarro heart and storybook sweetness of latter-day Wes Anderson at his very best.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the filmmaker’s distinctively quirky approach feels more at home than ever before, and that might have something to do with that fact that the surreal film has an excuse for its strangeness written right into its plot. As a series of introductory scenes indicate, what we are seeing in The Grand Budapest Hotel is in fact the retelling of the recalling of a distant memory. The story takes several steps backwards in time, first briefly introducing us to an old author, played by Tom Wilkinson, before flashing back to his younger counterpart (Jude Law), and his encounter with Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the mysterious owner and living ghost of the dowdy Grand Budapest Hotel of 1968. In a long conversation with the young writer, Mr. Moustafa recounts the story of how he came to own the faded hotel, which pushes the film back in time once again, to the Grand Budapest’s heyday in the 1930s. As an orphaned refugee, the young Moustafa – known in those days only as “Zero” – takes up a position as a lobby boy at the eponymous hotel, under the tutelage of the charming but outrageous concierge, Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Mr. Moustafa’s story to the young writer involves too many twists and turns and side characters for any further attempts at a detailed plot synopsis to be hugely worthwhile, suffice it to say that it features war, murder and the unlawful snatching of a priceless work of art. The film moves too quickly and is far too funny for the convoluted storyline to be taken very seriously – it’s soon clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and in a movie containing chapter titles like “The Second Copy of the Second Will” and character names such as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, the finer details of the plot are really too silly to get caught up in anyway.
It was while watching this movie that we finally found our way onto the Wes Anderson wavelength. It might have been somewhere between seeing M. Gustave team up with gruff jailbird Harvey Keitel to stage the most amusingly implausible prison escape ever committed to film, and finding ourselves rolling with the ridiculous but oddly exhilarating late-film ski slope chase (if anyone ever adapts the old Microsoft game “Ski Free” for the screen, it ought to be Wes Anderson). Watching all this, it occurred to us that at the heart of the cartoonish escapades and off-the-wall set pieces was a moviemaker interested not just in telling stories or exploring human characters, but in creating worlds. This can be said, in a general way, about most film directors. But it’s true of Anderson in a specific way. He really means it. In The Royal Tenenbaums he emulated the imagined New York City of J.D. Salinger’s novels and short stories. In Moonrise Kingdom he lifted the colours and exaggerated the outfits in a way that amounted to a carefully oversaturated period piece; a version of 1965 that never quite was. With The Grand Budapest Hotel he goes all the way, inventing a brand new European nation (“the Republic of Zubrowska”) with its own culture and history. Anderson takes full advantage of the creative freedom that this geographical non-specificity grants him – a lot of the backdrops are unashamedly artificial, and a great many of the establishing shots are composed using miniatures. But he really hits a home run with the hotel itself. The Grand Budapest of the 1930s is a stunning, enchanting, unreal place. What makes it work is its centrality: it’s a place that draws the players together, a base for a lot of the action, a conduit, a through-line that carries the film’s ethos. And Anderson makes a meal of it. The filmmaker does just as Gustave commands his subordinates to do in the event of his regrettable absence: he glorifies the Grand Budapest, lovingly indulging in its vibrant pinks and glorious high ceilings. The hotel becomes a character in the movie, and that’s what makes it all work. The art directors and the very talented members of the costume, set and production design departments dive right into this film world, making the hotel larger-than-life and otherworldly and Zubrowskian and Andersonian. Whatever it is, it’s never naturalistic. But it’s like nothing else in movie theatres – and what else does it need to be?
The acting in The Grand Budapest Hotel is great. Ralph Fiennes breathes life into Anderson’s exquisitely silly dialogue as the sophisticated concierge. His Gustave H is either a disarmingly polished scoundrel that we never catch out of character, or a bit of a phony who is nevertheless truly devoted to providing exceptional service. Or maybe he is a combination of these things? We’re never really sure. Through Zero’s eyes he is the hero of the story, the only one who understands what matters most: proper manners. Fiennes creates, in the dubious Gustave H, Anderson’s greatest anti-hero since Rushmore’s Max Fischer – he’s outrageous, deplorable and absolutely magnetic. On a whole, the acting in the movie is idiosyncratic, but also toned down and controlled. The various contributions of the performers – their offbeat gestures and movements, the often deadpan delivery – all occur on the same level as master cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s extravagant tracking shots and comical zooms. When police inspector Edward Norton’s head abruptly emerges from a hole in the floor, making sharp turns this way and that as he addresses his men above, or when the dead-eyed villain Willem Dafoe rhythmically plucks open the buttons of his leather jacket to retrieve a flask stored alongside his gun holster, we are only watching some of the deliberately positioned (and occasionally mobile) elements of Anderson’s immaculately composed frame. And not always the most important elements, either. As Gustave instructs young Zero (Tony Revolori) on his duties as a lobby boy, the actors are dwarfed by the lavish production design; they are merely purple uniforms against the vivid red of the hotel elevator, figures locked in the dead centre of an enormously detailed set. Anderson’s trick is to furnish his sets with a cast of familiar and adored character actors: Jeff Goldblum as a by-the-book attorney, Tilda Swinton as a rich old widow. And of course, Bill Murray, in his obligatory cameo appearance. It’s amusing to see so many iconic movie faces, only appearing – sometimes very briefly – in service to the film’s peculiar style; functioning as little more than moving parts of the carefully arranged scenery.
Like all of Wes Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is eccentrically mannered. Everything is deliberately, delightedly measured; imbued with that particular quirky feel that his movies have. It might, along with arguably all of Anderson’s films after Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore, lack a beating human heart, but what it lacks in heart it more than makes up for with its imagination, its energy and its impeccable design. It might not have a lot of heart, but it has life, and it’s gotten me back on board. Consider this particular reviewer a born-again Wes Anderson fans. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has made his sharpest, funniest and most inventive feature film since the inimitably special Rushmore. Go see it while it’s on the big screen – it’s worth it!
The Grand Budapest Hotel – At the movies April 10, 2014