Mar 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is currently exploring darker, deeper territory than he ever has in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most melancholy and sad of his movies, and although it looks like a gorgeous confection, I am not sure that the feelings it evokes and Anderson's ultra-refined style mesh smoothly. Perhaps his depth as an artist has outgrown his style.
It is, as usual, visually ravishing.The lovely cinematography is by Robert Yeoman. The costume and production design are spectacular.
It is also an intricate Chinese box of stories. A writer (Tom Wilkinson) remembers when he used to visit the decrepit Hotel Zubrowka, empty and decaying under communist rule, when he was young and looked like Jude Law. There he meets the once owner of the hotel, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who then tells the story of how he came to own it, when he apprenticed as a young lad (the charming and deadpan Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of the concierge to end all concierges, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustave is the epitome of civilization and a bit of a louche. He seduces the guests, be they male or female, yet he is heroically polite and true to his principles, which he bends on occasion for mostly practical reasons. Fiennes inhabits this man with quicksilver subtlety. He either recites long strands of adorned dialogue and romantic poetry, or is curt, sharp and vulgar the next breath. He does not stoop to caricature; he is precise but not punctilious, polite but never supercilious. He creates one of Anderson's most dimensional characters. He carries the movie beyond the arch and twee and slightly nonchalant, and gives it enormous dignity. He also looks like he bears an incredibly sad burden under his cheerful aplomb. He is nostalgia personified.
There is a very complicated plot about a will left by an old widow (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable behind massive wrinkles) and her evil, greedy family that craves her fortune. And a business about the destruction of civilization by a Nazi-like regime, brutish totalitarian thugs with no use for art, culture or refinement.
There is more horror than usual. The story is lovely, the undercurrent of loss truly profound and moving. The loss of home, family ties, the loves of your life, of a world, the loss of nostalgia itself, of old fashioned storytelling, of the past, the loss of the idea of Europe as the wellspring of civilization art and sensibility. This does not prevent Gustave from spouting some prejudiced generalizations about immigrants like Zero, in case anybody accuses Anderson of glorifying colonial empires.
I share with him the nostalgia for something we are both too young to miss. A sense of loss of something we will never see again. He gets the seventies communist decor right (although significantly less drab), he gets the Mitteleuropa vibe right.
The sad layers of lost worlds burrow under your skin.
I have always liked Anderson's style, his charming visual gags, his technical panache. Every frame is rich with little visual winks. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a rich and luscious cake of many tiers. So much detail! But even as I marveled at the beauty of every frame, at the sly wit of some of the sequences, at catching some cute joke on the corner of the frame, I feel that Anderson's style has become a little stifling. It certainly gets in the way of rhythm and it makes the movie drag, although one is so busy drinking in the images and chasing all the details, that it barely matters. The chase sequences are twee but lifeless, an escape from prison unfolds painstakingly but with little suspense. A couple of plot jolts work better, reminding the audience that despite the eye candy, we are truly invested in the fate of the main characters. But the movie feels like it needs fresh air, perhaps because most of it is shot in a studio and is deliberately claustrophobic. The hotel, the rooms, the elevators, the jail, everything is in constricted spaces. Everything is a square inside a square. As Anderson is clearly a gifted artist, I wonder what he could do with circles. What would happen, now that he is deepening his feel for human emotion, if he lent his attention to other shapes, different textures, other less meticulously arranged landscapes?

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