Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The end credits of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ prominently acknowledges the inspiration of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. I’ve never read anything by him, but if his work gave Wes Anderson – one of the most unique talents in contemporary cinema – the impetus to make something as witty, inventive and sublime as this, then I need to read everything by Zweig I can get my hands on.

Remember the sequence of nested flash-forwards that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’ ends with? Anderson reverses the trick, opening in the present as a studious young woman visits a cemetery and stands before the monument to an author (the author is referred to solely as The Author). The monument is hung with hotel room keys. The woman begins reading from one of The Author’s books. Flashback to The Author as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) being interrupted by a potato-gun wielding grandchild as he delivers a monologue to camera on how he came to write his most famous work. Flashback to The Author as a younger man (Jude Law), sojourning at The Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. The place is run-down, a shadow of its former self. In the bath-house, The Author meets the establishment’s reclusive owner Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who happens to me a fan of his work. Zero invites him to dinner and proceeds proceeds to tell him the story of how he came to own the hotel. Flashback to 1932 and … And here let us pause a moment.

Remember the opening sequence of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s ‘Cold Fever’ where the 1.66:1 aspect ratio for the crowded Toyko scenes is superceded by the full 2.35:1 widescreen as soon as the action shifts to the rugged vista of Iceland? Anderson reverses the trick, reducing the screen to a smaller aspect ratio as the 1932 story (i.e. the rest of the film) plays out. Contrapuntally, the screen floods with colour and the hotel in its glory days comes bursting to life. There are entire articles to be written on the production design, the look of the hotel and the matte painting landscape it occupies; personally, I’ll go for one of those “x-meets-y” cheats – imagine ‘The Shining’ made by Powell & Pressburger circa ‘Black Narcissus’ – and leave it at that.

The hotel is run to sycophantic perfection by its concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in what the history of cinema may well record as his finest performance), who becomes mentor to newly appointed lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, making his acting debut). Gustave insists on discretion, servility and good manners, and personifies every aspect of the old world civility that he holds dear … until something annoys him and he fires off a litany of curses as inventive as it is vehement. Gustave also offers services of a more intimate nature to a succession of eccentric and lonely dowagers. When one of these grande dames, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies under mysterious circumstances, she leaves Gustave a priceless painting, Boy With Apple, in her will.

It looks for a moment as if Gustave’s ship has come in. One problem, though: the will is subject to several hundred codicils and solicitor Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) cautions that her extended family – headed up by the villainous Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic associate Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – should be patient while the legal formalities are completed. Decidedly unwelcome at the wake, Gustave and Zero expedite the matter of Gustave’s inheritance by simply making off with the painting. Meanwhile, the political face of Europe is changing, with troops are amassing at borders; Gustave, however, is able to rely on his connection with Henckels (Edward Norton), commanding officer of a battalion which later occupies the hotel. But even nepotism can’t be relied upon when he’s accused of Madame D’s murder. Arrested and imprisoned pending trial, Gustave falls in with a group of hardened criminals led by Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), who are planning a jailbreak. But some outside help is required. Gustave ropes in Zero and the young baker’s assistant, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), with whom he has become smitten. Cue the best “cake with a file in” gag ever.

By the way, we’re merely half way through a 100 minute film at this point. To say ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is rich in incident is like saying Metallica play a bit loud. And there is still plenty of incident to come: a break-out that plays like ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ re-orchestrated as a minuet; an “on the lam” sequence which sees Gustave call upon the services of The Order of the Crossed Keys (cue cameos from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban, just in case, y’know, the cast wasn’t awesome enough already); a couple of pure horror movie moments courtesy of Jopling; and a subplot wrapped up in espionage thriller imagery regarding Gustave and Zero’s pursuit of Serge X (Mathieu Amalric), the one man who can clear his name.

In lesser hands, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ would be a curate’s egg at best, and a tonally schizophrenic disaster at worst. Anderson’s control of the material, however, is so intuitive, so masterful, so sure-footed that there isn’t a wrong note in the whole thing. The balance is absolutely perfect: visual dexterity; knowingly ironic nods to diverse genres; intellectual wit tempered with beautifully timed moments of lowbrow humour; a propulsive screwball narrative of the type that even the Coen Brothers don’t trade in anymore; and (with the possible exception of Ronan’s slightly bewildered turn) a cast who are utterly in tune with their director, who “get” what he’s about and bring their A-game and then some.

Am I gushing? That’s because ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is one of the finest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s Anderson’s masterpiece in a filmography that is uniformly excellent. It provides the perfect material for the fullest synthesis yet of his trademark visual style and aesthetic concerns. Its touches of melancholy are acutely judged and give just the right amount of weight to a film that otherwise puts the fun in fin de siécle.

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