Thursday, March 13, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel (***1/2)
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
The overall majesty of Wes Anderson is tough to pinpoint. There's a downright stubbornness to the dedication he brings to his precious, dioramic stories, and with each film, there is a creeping feeling that the filmmaker is becoming more and more hermetic in his cinematic view. One might worry if the Wes Anderson world has begun to replace reality for him. And yet, I really feel that he is one of the very best and unique voices that we have in the movies today. His films strike a tone between melancholy and whimsy unlike any other before or since, and while you can usually accuse him of being intentionally stylized, there's always unquestionably a heart at the center of all his tales and while the humanity is always mannered in a specific way, his movies are always, in fact, humane. And so the latest venture of the American Empirical troupe of cast and crew makes its way to another exotic locale in Eastern Europe where we are privy to the styles and tribulations of a small republic named Zubrowska. All of the regulars for Anderson are here, his dependable stable of actors following him from film to film no matter how meaningless the role; but there is one exception: the inclusion of the absolutely exquisite Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes plays Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the famed Grand Budapest Hotel and runs the everyday services of the estate including the entire staff and most of the guests. It is 1932, with the threat of a new war rearing its head while the scars of the first war still sit not fully healed. Many of the most prestigious guests of the hotel stay just for the pleasure of his company. Gustave's unorthodox style in the hospitality industry includes free and willing sex with much older women and treating them all as his personal friends and lovers. But these exotic excursions do not distract him from his job at the hotel, which he runs tight as a drum and holds to a near impossible standard of perfection. Gustave's strictly-formatted world of decadence is brought a change in the form of Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori), a teenaged lobby boy who is hired on a temporary basis. He will be kept on full time if Gustave approves. Zero is dedicated, loyal and completely awestruck by the glamour of the Grand Budapest. Gustave grills the boy roughly at the beginning, but comes to find him charming and when Zero proves apt at all of his many, many responsibilities, Gustave makes him his right hand man and his closest ally in the hotel.
One of the Grand Budapest's most loyal customers is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), a fragile 84-year-old widow who is completely infatuated with Gustave. Madame D. speaks to Gustave about her fear of oncoming doom and begs him to return with her to her home, but Gustave refuses. While he loves Madame D., his love is not any more passionate for her than for any of his other devoted patrons. But when Madame D. is found dead only a few days later, his heart sinks. Gustave and Zero flock off to her estate to pay respects where they meet Madame D.'s butler, Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) who suggests that the old woman's death may be more complicated than it seems. When Madame D.'s will is read, it is discovered that, while her estate and earnings will go to her devilish son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), she left one priceless item specifically to Gustave: a German renaissance painting called 'Boy with Apple'; a piece of art of almost unspeakable value. Gustave is overjoyed but Dmitri is disgusted. Armed with a particularly sadistic bodyguard named Jopling (Willem Defoe), Dmitri prepares to bar Gustave from ever gaining possession of 'Boy with Apple', while Zero and the infamous concierge make a move to steal the painting and run off with it for good.
This entire episode is accounted by Zero when he is a much older man (played by F. Murray Abraham) thirty years later, as the Grand Budapest still stands but sits mostly empty and uneventful, its spirit no doubt run down by Communist takeover. He recounts his adventures with a visiting English author (Jude Law), who himself is recounting Zero's story from a much older age (played by Tom Wilkinson). The multi-layering of the narrative and the narrators has a very Bronte-esque, Wuthering Heights feel to it, and Anderson wants those dots to be connected. The film is said to be inspired by the work of Austrian short story writer Stefan Zweig, but the plot unravels like the thrillers of Agatha Christie. It's always been obvious that Anderson's personal influences extend outside of cinema, but also into literature and formal art. Grand Budapest feels to me like the biggest mixed bag. There are so many characters, each bringing with them an important detail and a personality quirk. Take the character of Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a young baker's assistant whom Zero meets and falls in love; or Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), the well-principled accountant of the Grand Budapest's finances and also coincidentally the executor of Madame D.'s will. All these characters are strings that Anderson orchestrates into wild web of a plot, but they're all still individual manifestations, a notch above plot devices.
Anderson's style is obvious to the eye (the flat tracking shots, the synthetic sets, the affected dialogue), and makes it easy for audiences to accuse him, at this point in his career, of self-parody. But self-parody to me suggests laziness, and a discomfort with trying new things. That is not the case with Grand Budapest. Consider that Anderson shoots the film in three different aspect ratios - to mark the three different time frames that the film takes place in - and spends most of the story in the square-like ratio, 1.33 (as the scenes are closer to the present, the wider the screen becomes). It's a visual choice almost as inspired as P.T. Anderson's decision to shoot The Master in 70mm, and definitely more radical. But I'd guess that the decision will get only a fraction of the attention. This may be the best looking film Wes has ever made, working with his usual cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, but taking on a new editor in Barney Pilling. Anderson's films have always been amongst the best edited as far as comedy is concerned, considering how much of his sardonic sense of humor is reliant on timing, and Budapest has some of the best cuts I've seen in a good long while.
Anderson's films have gotten consistently darker since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, with the exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and while Grand Budapest is probably much closer to Fox in terms of tone and whimsy, it continues the trend of dark material. Life Aquatic deconstructed the tortured mind of Steve Zissou, Darjeeling Limited meditated on the depressed, suicidal emotions of three brothers in arrested development, and Moonrise Kingdom showed the violent side of preteen angst. That all these tales are wrapped in the precious bows that Wes likes to provide shouldn't hide the fact that these characters are dark, complex beings. Budapest doesn't quite have those tortured souls - Gustave H. is as aloof about personal manners and surrounding influences as Royal Tenenbaum was. But it is certainly the most violent of any of Wes Anderson's films, and it's violence is graphic in a silly, cynical kind of way that seems alarming. With each movie, it somehow seems like Wes Anderson's worldview is getting dimmer. He's gotten further and further away from the US with each film as well, and there's little to be seen of the Texas boy who made Bottle Rocket in 1996.
I personally think Wes Anderson topped out with The Royal Tenenbaums, a hilarious familial drama with the personal scope of something by Eugene O'Neill; I think it's his masterpiece. The separation between Tenenbaums and the rest of his filmography is large, but all of the other films sit together pretty closely in terms of quality, but that quality is still higher than most American filmmakers. There's a reason why Anderson can cast the likes of Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and Bill Murray like routine - including roles in Grand Budapest that have their moments, but are mostly forgettable side pieces. Budapest is on the level of Darjeeling and Moonrise Kingdom, it has individual moments of unbelievable charm (including a breathtaking sequence in which Goldblum's Kovacs is being chased through a museum by the eager Jopling), even if it does have occasional moments of overbearing quirk and unnecessary characters that only seem to serve the purpose of employing someone like, say, Jason Schwartzman or Owen Wilson to appease certain factions of the fanbase. But Wes will probably never budge from his overwrought style - and I've never been sure that he really ever has to.
The added spice of Grand Budapest is Fiennes, who's never starred in a Wes Anderson film before. I would've been generally excited for this film anyway, but the inclusion of Fiennes - one of our very best film actors - is something completely different. Wes Anderson has worked with legendary actors (Gene Hackman) and he's had his share of prestigious, Shakespearean performers (Michael Gambon) but never has he worked with an actor studiously trained and so powerfully emotive. Fiennes has done comedy before and he's done it well, but this is easily his greatest lead comedic role. He understands the beats and the specific timing that Anderson is working with, and yet, it's hard to remember the last time an actor has been so forceful and possessive as the lead in his movies. It's the most commanding work since Hackman's brilliant rendition in Tenenbaums. And yet, for all the fun I seem to have watching actors dive into the Wes Anderson matrix, this performance feels completely of its own, like it's the very performance that Fiennes wanted to give. He's always had the ability to mix his English charm with the always-present hint of deviant behavior. I can't remember a Fiennes performance that makes better use of that skill than this one. It's one of foremost achievements on an already impressive resume.
No doubt, Fiennes ability to stop on a dime within a comedic performance and deliver a line, or even a glance, and translate the dramatic emotion of a character makes him essentially the perfect fit for Wes Anderson, who is at his best when he's given actors who can excel at this. Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and to a certain extent, Owen Wilson, are also very good at this in the Wes Anderson canon. The Grand Budapest Hotel continues Anderson's recent boost which started two years ago with the surprise hit Moonrise Kingdom. He's been said to be back in his groove, even though I think it's the audiences that have changed, not Wes. This film probably acknowledges the outside world more than any other of his films, but it even does that in its own coded, idiosyncratic way, commenting on the effects of the oncoming National Socialists and even further, the oppressive nature of life in East Berlin. Set design and costume work, always important to Wes' aesthetic, is at its peak here and proves that, while many think Wes is imprisoning himself within his own strict style, he still is continuing to grow as a visual storyteller. I'm glad that Wes is back in the good graces of audiences and critics, because he has always been one of my favorites and I'm especially glad he didn't have to sacrifice his specific vision to get back to the top.