Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Story Told in a Twilight: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper perched between the World Wars. Writer-director Wes Anderson (inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig) creates an abstracted Old World caught as it is disappearing, a colorful fantasy Europe that’s poisoned by drab fascist forces and left forever changed. In true Anderson fashion, he’s designed his fictional European country (Zubrowka, he names it) as a candy-colored dollhouse of meticulous design. At the center is The Grand Budapest Hotel of the title. It’s a wondrous creation, a massive structure nestled in the Alps where it looks for all the world like a hotel Rankin and Bass characters might’ve passed on their way to the North Pole. Its exterior is a pale pink, floors stacked like a cheerfully, elaborately frosted wedding cake. Inside, a lushly carpeted and handsomely furnished labyrinth of luxuries wraps around itself in a square that forces guests and employees alike to walk in crisp geometric patterns. At this Hotel, a caper is hatched, a war encroaches, then years later a writer is inspired. Still later, that writer’s work lives on, calling us back into its melancholic past.

Layers upon layers, the film is a memory inside a book inside a movie. As it begins, a young woman opens a book and begins to read. The author (Tom Wilkinson) appears to us in his office, ready to recount the time he first heard the story his book relays. We see The Author as a Young Man (Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest in the late 1960s, now a cavernous, sparsely populated space not too far removed from The Shining territory, albeit without the supernatural elements. The author meets a lonely old man (F. Murray Abraham) who invites the author to hear the story of how he became the owner of the hotel. Intrigued, the author agrees. And so back once more into the past we go, to the 1930s, when the Grand Budapest was at its peak. For each time period, Anderson designates a different aspect ratio, boxy Academy Ratio 30s stretch into anamorphic late-60s, before growing shallow and simple in 16x9 present day. It’s as mischievous as it is exact, moving through time with clear visual orientation.

The film spends the bulk of its time in the 1930s. We meet Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a supercilious dandy who manages the Grand Budapest Hotel with a suave charm and a composed pompous sincerity. His new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) tells of the man’s peccadilloes, namely wooing the little old ladies that visit the hotel. These early passages operate with a dizzying fizz, whiffs of the Lubitsch touch generating much sophisticated posturing and door-slamming farce. Anderson here, working with deep focus lenses and finely calibrated tragicomic performances, has the giddy architectural design of Lubitsch’s silents and the bubbly urbane wit of his talkies. The boy and his boss move through a world of color as vivid as in any Powell/Pressburger film, helping the Grand Budapest’s guests in any way they can. Fiennes and Revolori’s performances are nicely synchronized, the former a fatuous perfectionist, the latter a wide-eyed innocent whose deadpan acceptance in the face of disbelief and disaster balances it out.

Through briskly delivered dialogue and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, the metronome is set perfectly for a caper that’s about to erupt, escalating in suspense and incident at an engaging tempo. As the plot gets underway, one of Gustave’s very rich elderly lovers (Tilda Swinton, beneath a generous application of makeup) has died. At the reading of the will, all her most distant acquaintances arrive, shocked to hear that the hotel manager has been left her most valuable painting. While her lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) assures her son (Adrian Brody) that this late-arriving addendum must be authenticated, Gustave and his lobby boy abscond with the painting and take off for the Grand Budapest. Soon, the woman’s son’s thug (Willem Dafoe), a missing butler (Mathieu Amalric), a fascist Inspector (Edward Norton), a scowling prisoner (Harvey Keitel), a sweet baker (Saoirse Ronan), the leader of a team of concierges (Bill Murray), and more get pulled into a scampering plot involving locating, hiding, or aiding and abetting the movement of this most desirable painting.

All the while, the threat of violence looms large. Soldiers brutishly ask travelers for papers. Guards are stabbed to death. A pet meets a gory end. Fingers are misplaced. The film is crisply playful in unspooling its brisk and wry heist plot, loving in its evocation of period-appropriate cinematic touchstones, from the aforementioned Lubitsch and Powell/Pressburger to a mountain cable car right out of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. It’s affectionately constructed, miniatures adding whimsy that somehow doesn’t distract from the real menace in the action.  Nonchalant gore, periodic splashes of vibrant red and matters of life and death in an otherwise charmingly pastel, idealized Old World Europe maintains reality as an inescapable intrusion. No matter the perfectly constructed melancholy nostalgia, the violence of greed and war are an inevitable erosion of this ideal.

The fizzy sophistication of loose permissiveness as signified by Gustave’s unflappable reign of pleasure in the Grand Budapest grows frazzled and tossed as he’s thrown, by his plotting and by the march of time, into danger and exile, on the run from dark intimations of violence and despair. Though, like a typical Wes Anderson protagonist, he projects confidence, even when circumstances are at their most dire. He thinks he’ll get by because that’s all he’s ever planned on. He carries himself with great sense of purpose, even when stumbling into situations deteriorating rapidly, falling into doom, or at least humiliation. The entire oddball ensemble has characters similarly driven towards their goals, a perfect set of traits for people in a story of careful caper construction. When the cogs fall into place and the wheels make their final turn, interlocking every variable, it’s most satisfying, indeed.

For Anderson, film is an artifice, but his style is never an affectation. His pictorial beauty (again with his usual cinematographer Robert Yeoman), visual wit, symmetric blocking, high angle shots, laconic profundities, dead-pan peculiarities, 90-degree whip pans, finicky fonts, cutaway gags, witty repartee, and editorial precision (this time with editor Barney Pilling) add up to an intensely personal and deeply felt playfulness. He comes by his style honestly, carefully, a magic blend of planning and happenstance. It’s all too easy to imagine making a mockery of such meticulousness, but all Anderson parodies miss the depth roiling within the rich and lovingly assembled surfaces. Here is a film that’s on one level a lark, with its bouncy caper, funny lines, and familiar faces. Crescendos of tension and suspense build into action sequences of tremendous delight and dips of apprehension. But underneath sits the darkness.

Here he creates a world of colorful eccentricity soon to be snuffed out, or at least irreparably damaged, by the marching armies at the border. After it all, the Grand Budapest remains, but the world it represents can only be accessed through stories. Layers upon layers of storytelling, of artifice, are not arbitrary comic filigrees or distancing effects. Here the tragedies of the past linger with overwhelming melancholy as we back out of our main story, to the old man who at one point stops his tale to wipe back tears, to the young woman who cherishes the book in which it was immortalized, to the audience as the lights come up and the credits roll. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a totally enveloping aesthetic pleasure, funny and exciting, sharp and sad, so very moving, so completely transporting.

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