Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Art of Artifice
"Faint Glimmers of Civilization in This Barbaric Slaughterhouse That Was Once Known as Humanity"

Wes Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, takes him out of the contemporary U.S. (as was a visit to India in The Darjeeling Limited) and into pre-war Europe. But, just as Woody Allen's European adventures still feel like transplanted versions of his New York films, despite the change in venue, this one lies squarely in Andersonville.

The framing device is like a set of Matryoshka dolls (which, in turn, are shot in different screen aspect ratios as are illustrated below—a movie version of "nesting"): in the present day, we see the statue of a famous writer, then a filmed address by said writer (played here by Tom Wilkinson), who introduces the tale of how he (in the form of Jude Law) heard the tale originally: on a stay at the relic of a once luxurious hotel and spa for the rich, The Grand Budapest in the Republic of Zubrowka, he meets its reclusive owner, one Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who, for some reason, habitually stays in the one closet-like room reserved for lobby boys. The man is monied, propertied, so what possible reason could there be for such a humble practice?

Over a long dinner in the Grand's nearly empty dining room, Moustafa tells the writer of the heady days of the Grand, pre-War in 1932, when he first arrived and took a position as a lobby boy under the tutelage of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, who takes the role between his teeth and wrestles it like a beloved chew-toy), the long-in-standing concierge of the Grand, whose adherence to societal protocol and near-psychic attendance to his guests' needs belies a roué's cynicism and a melancholic (almost necrophiliac) nostalgia for the past. The Grand's hoity-toity love him as he is unfailingly solicitous, calling everyone "darling," and because he will personally see to their whims and desires, even their carnal ones.

But, when one of his "ladies" (with the improbable name of Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis, played by Tilda Swinton) is found dead after her visit to The GBH, Msr. H. is suspected of murder (a very slow one, evidently). He is accused (by the Madame's son, Dimitri, played by Adrien Brody) arrested and thrown into prison, which then throws the Hotel into disarray. It's a conspiracy of sorts, and it is up to the young lobby-boy to make it right. One does, after all, have to anticipate one's needs in hotelry.

Present Day: The Telling of the Telling of the Tale
It's very fine (and fun) how Anderson takes us back in time, visually, without having to rely on a long "word-crawl," explaining who, what, where, when and how, but, instead taking us back in time (and scope) to present his world of large halls (that remind one of The Overlook in The Shining) and tiny details that are presented in life-size and miniature, 30 frames a second and stop-motion. It's not supposed to be real. It's supposed to be quaint, in a fairly demented way. And he's aided and abetted by his all-star cast, made up of a top tier of new faces with a taste for quirk, and cameos by the ever-loyal (and growing) Anderson stock company (Owen WilsonJason SchwartzmanBill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Edward NortonBob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum).
The word for this movie is "confection," more so than any other of Anderson's films, which have always carried an air of preciousness to them; for example, much is made of a certain baker's in Zubrowka, by the name of Mendl's, makers of intricate desserts in perfect little boxes that open at the pulling of a ribbon. Anderson's film has the same intricacy and fragility as those desserts (and one can't help looking at Anderson's framing as "little boxes"), but is played at such a savage and swift pace at times, it dares itself to fly off the rails, as if all that planning and detail was meant to be merely thrown in one's face for a laugh, like a carefully sculpted pie.

1968: The Telling of the Tale
It never does topple, perhaps due to Anderson's now-customary one-point perspective framing, so controlled as to be mirthful in its own right. His elaborate right angle cross-cutting—at one point, in the 1968 sequence, he shows four different angles on the elder Zero Moustafa, north, south, east and west between shots of him being discussed—is focused so as to not jar the eye-line from shot to shot. That's some careful visual architecture working there. In fact, some of the fastest cutting and movement in the film is done with those strictly balanced shots, as if willing itself, by energy, to turn into a rudimentary 3-D film. Or a particularly aggressive cartoon.
1932: The Tale
It is precious, but not in the slow, self-satisfied way that Anderson's early films have often been, but snappily, stylishly, as if in a blur, like a passing fancy or a former way of life, run over by happenstance and the future's inexorable pace. The Grand Budapest Hotel waves a customary handkerchief as it passes by, but passes, nonetheless, blithely, chirpily, and entertainingly, zipping away with a fading laugh.

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