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Non-Review Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

“His world departed long before he entered it,” one of the narrators from The Grand Budapest Hotel notes of the film’s lead character. “But he maintained an elaborate illusion.” This description is applied to the suave sophisticated concierge Gustav H, played wonderfully by Ralph Fiennes, but it could also apply to director Wes Anderson – a director whose cinematic style is built upon nostalgic nods to a past that may never have actually existed.

Framed as a story within a story within a story, jumping back from the eighties to the sixties to the late thirties, Anderson draws even more attention to his artifice than usual. Wrapping a framing story around a framing story seems almost cheeky, as Anderson brings the audience incrementally into the past – suggesting that one needs to wade in rather than diving. The story of a romantic living in a cynical era, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems – despite its scale and scope – one of Anderson’s more intimate efforts.

It is also among his very best.

Vault out to see it...

Vault out to see it…

Anderson’s style has always seemed very retro – favouring a hyper-stylised approach to film-making that evokes the artificiality of it all. Improbably bright colours that always seem compliment one another, almost cartoonish imagery, cardboard backgrounds; Anderson’s technique has always been to draw our attention to the unreality of his films. The Grand Budapest Hotel has this approach on full display.

Barring the entrance way itself, the eponymous hotel never seems to exist as anything more than a cardboard cutout. The trains arriving look like something from a seventies cartoon. Characters short running in silhouette almost appear like refugees from one of Terry Gilliam’s frantic Monty Python animations. Those moving from one level of the set to another seldom do so on-screen (whether catching a train on a platform above them, or making a late night rooftop escape), they exit and re-enter, as if suggesting some depth of field illusion at play.

Having their cake and eating it too...

Having their cake and eating it too…

The point is clear. This is a world that doesn’t exist. It’s a world that could never exist. Anderson acknowledges as much by setting the story in a fictitious Eastern European country facing a bleak fictitious war in the late thirties. The thugs are Nazis in all but name, soldiers clad in grey and black, with the lightening “ZZ” logo standing for “the Zig-Zag Squad.” The film occupies a world recognisably similar to our own, but operating on an entirely different plain.

Which makes sense. Gustav H. could never exist in the real world. The quick-witted concierge of the eponymous luxury resort is a figure of fantasy. His possessions are few, but include several bottles of the perfume “L’eau de Panache” and “several volumes of romantic poetry”, poetry Gustav H. is quite willing to quote at a moment’s notice. A flirt and chancer, Gustav H. is the ideal concierge, a relic of a bygone age when people could trust on servants to protect their secrets to the grave.

Cleaning up his act...

Cleaning up his act…

Over the course of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustav gets into all sorts of trouble – he’s frequently frustrated by the people around him. He is framed and betrayed, manipulated and locked away. He has a few dark moments of the soul, but there’s an incredible sense of romance to lonely old Gustav. He pauses to mourn the passing of a fellow servant, even one who was trying to kill him. When he loses his temper with anybody, he is quick to apologise.

Although there’s an obvious desperation and greed at play in his interactions with his elderly female patrons, Gustav is respectful and considerate of them. Gustav is a character who feels woefully outdated in the world around him – completely unprepared for the cynicism that confronts him. He embodies an old-world innocence that probably never actually existed, but the kind of idealism and romance that we’d like to believe existed.

Laying down the Law...

Laying down the Law…

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a paean to an age of innocence that never quite existed – something the film tacitly and repeatedly acknowledges. For all its romantic imagery, it is the most brutal film that Anderson has ever produced – full of reminders of man’s inhumanity to man and the cruelness of the world itself. Even Gustav himself is far from a flawless character – while he’s respectful of and concerned about the welfare of his patrons, he is also greedy. While not his first reaction on hearing of the passing of an acquaintance, he does ponder whether she may have left him some money.

And yet, despite these more obvious examples of cynicism, The Grand Budapest Hotel remains a film about an innocent past that never existed. In fact, the film calls attention to how little actual substance Gustav H. actually has. The narrator points out that he never found out where Gustav came from, or where his family might be. The movie gives us enough information to piece together a compelling profile of a man who knows true poverty and respects class, but the film itself draws attention to how intangible its central character is. The fact that he is known as “Gustav H.” should give the game away.

Gustav H, ladykiller?

Gustav H, ladykiller?

After all, Anderson isn’t trying to capture the sense of a world long lost to us. He is, instead, attempted to capture a fantasy landscape that is increasingly lost to us. The film doesn’t evoke particular periods so much as it evokes the pop culture memories of particular periods. The film calls this to the viewer’s attention in a number of ways – inviting them to question the unreality of it all.

The sequences set in the late sixties are shot in shades of vibrant orange and blue, on widescreen – evoking the popular cinema of the era. In contrast, the earlier sequences shift to the 4:3 aspect ratio associated with the cinema of the period in question. Although Anderson doesn’t opt to film in silence or in black-and-white (at least not until the climax), the film does feature a number of extended sequences on white backgrounds or in grey prison.

Everything is fine...

Everything is fine…

Anderson’s whimsical throwback is brought to life by a number of talented performers. Ralph Fiennes is amazing in the lead role. Gustav H. is arguably less defined than most Anderson leading characters, but Fiennes manages to breath an incredible amount of life into the man. He rattles off Anderson’s dialogue without any hesitation and with considerable speed – giving the impression of an individual who might not live in the real world, but still tries to be quick on his feet.

Fiennes makes Gustav hilarious and tragic and moving and sincere and pompous, all at the same time. The Grand Budapest Hotel is fabulously constructed, but Fiennes’ performance grounds the film – every moment he is on screen is a joy; and it’s to the benefit of the movie that Fiennes is on screen for most of the film’s runtime. Whether engaging in a decidedly off-kilter yet strangely moving conversation with a corpse or contemplating whether “the plot thickens” is “a soup metaphor”, he’s always fascinating.

Blame it on the lobby boy...

Blame it on the lobby boy…

Fiennes is supported by one of Anderson’s strongest ensembles to date, drawing in all manner of Wes Anderson regulars to help him tell this story, along with a few new faces to round out the crowd. Quite a few of the familiar faces are relegated to little more than cameos, but they all end an aura of class to the film. Of particular note, young Tony Revolori is wonderful as Zero, Fiennes’ Lobby Boy protégé and sometime partner in crime. Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe and Adrian Brody also do great work.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an example of a veteran auteur working at the very peak of his game. A rare cinematic joy from start to finish, it’s well worth checking out.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 4

3 Responses

  1. tweeted and facebooked it for you.

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