Saturday, March 8, 2014

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (2014) directed by Wes Anderson

If Wes Anderson was God the world would be a much nicer place. Over the course of his cinematic career he's woven unique cinematic style; creating a fractally detailed, synchronised universe.  This is a world where every tiny thing on screen is a jigsaw piece in a bigger picture; the fabrics used in the productions, the style of beards; the fonts on the cover of books; the dents on cars and tiny sound effects and a thousand other minute, carefully considered elements adding up to a sumptuous feast - a beautiful world, an aesthetic world - a better world.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is pinnacle of Wes Anderson's style; a geometric, symmetric and rectilinear caper through beautiful spaces populated with the cream of modern acting talent. After watching this it's difficult to imagine how a film could be any more Wes Anderson than this; every frame packed to the rafters with his idiosyncratic style.  

At it's core, the film is the story of a hotel. Set in the cartoonish fake Eastern European country of Zubrowka, the film quickly reveals a pleasingly onion-like structure.  We open with a modern woman visiting a monument to a famous Zubrowkian writer known only as "The Author".  As she opens a book we flash-back to 1985 where the middle-aged author is explains his methods and how he gets his ideas.  From here we flash-back once more to the mid 1960s, where the author (now played by Jude Law) stays at the hotel; now bedraggled, largely unoccupied and suffering under a shabby Kubrickean refit.  Here he meets the unassuming owner of the hotel.  The two men have dinner and the elderly owner recounts the tale of how he came to run this building.

It's always nice to see Jeff Goldblum in a film.
Now we're in the meat of the story: it's 1932 and Zubrowka is on the verge of war. The hotel is its prime, every aspect overseen by the exacting eye of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) with the assistance of his lobby boy protégé Zero (Tony Revolori).  With the death of elderly patron Madame D (Tilda Swinton) and her subsequent bequeathment of a painting to the concierge, the stage is set for adventure. For the rest of the film we plunge into an energetic, fast-paced farce as Gustave and Zero battle assassins, the military police, prison guards and sinister in-laws of Madame D. The plot twists and turns across Zubrowka, taking in cities, countryside and mountain-tops, showing us every inch of a country which usually only exists on the front of a chocolate box.

As with most Wes Anderson films, you'd be hard pressed to put together a better cast he can. Every few minutes a hugely talented actor pops up, does themselves proud then vanishes back into the crowd.  But though we see some memorable turns from luminaries like Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton and Adrien Brody, none of these can really touch Ralph Fiennes.  Quite simply he's marvellous, combining a brittle pansexual grace with a military man's attention to detail. Often, (sometimes within the space of a single line of dialogue!), he's paternal, horny, cruel and touching. It's a masterclass of a performance; turning what could have been a prissy Basil Fawlty type into a weirdly noble action hero.

One aspect of Wes Anderson's writing I deeply appreciate is the sincerity of his characters. They wear their passions on their sleeve, announcing their loves and fears at the drop of a hat. There's no ironic winking in a Wes Anderson film, when someone declares their love - whether it be for a hotel, an elderly lady or a resourceful baker, the film takes them at their word. It's important not to take this transparency as shallowness; just because these characters don't have secrets doesn't make them any less dramatically fascinating. My own theory as to why Anderson's characters behave so oddly is that they're children's ideas of what adult behaviour is like.

This is a very pretty film.
This is at the forefront of most of his films; the childish revenge of Herman Blume in Rushmore, the arrested development of the children in The Royal Tenenbaums; the swashbuckling (apparently) 'ideal' Dad Steve Zissou of The Life Aquatic.  Most of all it's at the forefront of his last film, the excellent Moonrise Kingdom, with two young runaways besotted with each other to the confusion of the neurotic adults.  In Grand Budapest we see Anderson's child-like world butting up against realpolitik, from the opening sequence we realise that this idealised 1930s world will be crushed under the boot of concrete realism - innocent childhood gradually and acceptingly replaced by the cool utilitarianism of adulthood.

This is furthered in the visual style of the film, the watercoloured matte-paintings and landscape wide-shots of Grand Budapest recalling children's pop-up books, the objects whizzing and wobbling through the scenery in a pleasingly analogue manner - looking like hand-made papercraft.  In fact, of all Wes Anderson's films, the closest aesthetic relation is the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox - a film that's literally children's literature in motion.

With the clear divisions between goodies and baddies and fast-paced rhythmic action The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds largely because it follows this basic template of children's adventure story, with laser-perfect moments of swearing and the odd bit of gruesome violence. This is pure escapism - a retreat into a reassuring world of order and beauty. The camera movements, locked into horizontal or vertical geometric motions underline this vision of an ordered universe, which ultimately becomes represented by the clockwork running of the titular hotel.

This is an absolute pleasure to watch from start to finish, tapping into the same base level of wonderment as you get when you peer into a miniature village, or pull open the doors of an extravagantly detailed doll's house and marvel at the detailing on every tiny piece of furniture. Under Anderson's steady hand everything in the film pulls in the same direction, the best moment being a pursuit up a mountain where every single sound effect squeaks and beats in time to Alexandre DeSplat's masterful score.  

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes no grand claims to sociological importance. It has no pretensions to tell us anything about the modern world. The message, such as it is, is essentially about the importance of good people sticking together - hardly news to a seasoned audience.  Yet there's something to be said for simple beauty, humour and craftsmanship in cinema. For a film to quite simply make you happy is reason enough for it to exist: with The Grand Budapest Hotel now out there in the world, things are minutely happier.


The Grand Budapest Hotel is out now.

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