Friday, April 18, 2014

Review - The Grand Budapest Hotel

“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” waxes Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's pastry-lite eulogy for a golden pre-war age of chivalrous romanticism, classy refinement, and gaudy luxury.

Though now a desolate and scarcely frequented relic of a bygone era, the Grand Budapest was once the most lavishly appointed palace of 1930s Zubrowka – a fictional European nation on the brink of an unnamed war – where it was run by the fey and fastidious concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). We hear Gustave and Zero's story as recounted by a much older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to a curious author (Jude Law), whose subsequent writings of the interview are being read decades later by an anonymous student...

… But back to the story within the story within the story:
M. Gustave's suave gold-digging ways have won him the bequeathal of a priceless painting – the hilariously mundane “Boy With Apple” – from a recently deceased old dame (Tilda Swinton); Just one of Gustave's many wooed blondes. Intent on rescuing the art from the conniving hands of the old lady's son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and the brass-armoured knuckles of his hit man Joplin (Wilem Dafoe), Gustave and Zero make off with the McGuffin in the name of historical preservation... until, that is, they decide a few seconds later to screw preservation and cash in on the painting.

Thus ensues the madness. Anderson orchestrates this stolen art caper with comic hijinks that run the gamut from the wittily madcap to the wickedly macabre; From prison-break tools smuggled in gourmet desserts, to morbid assassinations that leave one unfortunate victim with digits numbering six – In either case, fingers get “licked”.

But as with most of the American auteur's conspicuously peculiar comedies, there's something more substantially emotional lingering beneath its delectably silly surface. Anderson simply replaces tears with laughter here as a way of mourning the death of a civilization that was too glorious to last and has since dissipated into myth. Indeed, as Anderson and co-scribe Hugo Guiness' triple-layered framing device (the story-within-a-story-within-a-story) suggests, the only thing that keeps the spirit of that era alive is the passing down of legend and lore.
Times change, and people have always struggled to adapt. This has become one of the filmmaker's current hallmarks; His nostalgic affection for characters faced with evolving circumstances and forced to confront a new way of life. Sometimes painfully so, but always with a wry quip to make us smile and a singular backdrop against which to say it. This is as true in The Grand Budapest Hotel as it is in any of his most celebrated works, from The Royal Tenembaums to Fantastic Mr. Fox to Moonrise Kingdom.

There's even been some critical consideration that The Grand Budapest Hotel could be Anderson's best film yet. That may be up for debate, but I'd argue that it is his most “Anderson-y” film yet. All of his trademark anachronisms reach a level of saturation here that his detractors might find overbearing, but there can be no doubt that his distinctive form is evidence of a practiced visual storyteller who knows exactly what he's doing.

The precision of his square-framed compositions and 90° pans direct the rhythm of each scene, and capture the meticulous sets in all their diorama-like detail. And what sumptuous sets they are too! Following up his gritty Oscar-nominated work on 12 Years a Slave, production designer Adam Stockhausen gets to really showcase his artistic and tonal versatility by creating a candy-coloured world in miniature, populated by tiny people, as though we're looking at a scale model in some museum for extinct cultures. It all looks good enough to eat, not unlike the intricately-iced pastries that figure so cheekily into the plot. Here's hoping the designers branch of the Academy can remember him and set decorator Anna Pinnock nine months from now.
But of course, patrons of the hotel never came simply for the décor, but for the concierge. To similar effect, Ralph Fiennes is the real reason for audiences to check into the Grand Budapest. The venerated British thesp best known for his dramatic chops reminds us that the fine art of comedy is also very much in his wheelhouse, rifling off a dense litany of verbose witticisms with the infallible timing of a tightly wound Rolex. He is a priggish delight as the exacting impresario of the Grand Budapest, and proves greatly successful at channeling the tone of Anderson's wistful yet occasionally prickly humour.

Prickly insomuch as that Anderson can't help but slightly scoff at the world he so poignantly memorializes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even Gustave has to stop himself mid-sentence and amend the remark of his that opened this article: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it.”

***1/2 out of ****

1 comment:

  1. I loved it. I simply loved it. The best film of the year so far, and one of my favourite from the auteur. As long as he keeps making films like this, I will always be first in line to see his films on opening day!