Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Deep in the mountains of the republic of Zubrowka lies the Grand Budapest Hotel which, in the late 60s, lies in disrepair and guests are few and far between. However, in it's glory days in the 30s, it was home to one of the finest concierges of the day, Gustave H. Gustave spends his days courting a series of aging, wealthy blondes; one of whom is Madame D, who dies under mysterious circumstances and leaves a valuable painting, Boy with Apple, to Gustave, leaving her family enraged. Thus begins the family's quest to prove Gustave is Madame D's murderer and reclaim the painting for themselves. However, Gustave has a plan: He and his faithful lobby boy, Zero, have stolen the painting and hidden it, so when Gustave is arrested, it's down to Zero to formulate a plan to both escape and clear Gustave's name...

I love Wes Anderson and his films. I love his style of storytelling, his visual style, his colour palette, and his style of dialogue. It's unconventional, mainstream-indie cinema at its finest. If you're unclear as to who Anderson is, here's his filmography: Bottle Rocket. Rushmore. The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Darjeeling Limited. Fantastic Mr Fox. Moonrise Kingdom. And now, The Grand Budapest Hotel. All of his films are distinct, no-one makes films quite like Anderson, you know almost immediately whose film you're watching once you see one. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlike any other Anderson film previous. Why? In the past, he's co-written his films with one of his friends. The Grand Budapest Hotel is his first solo writing venture, and it reveals an entirely different side to Anderson's sensibilities.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, without a shadow of a doubt, Anderson's most adult film to date. This is definitely not a negative, but as much as there are still all the tell tale signs of this being an Anderson film, the screenplay makes this film the most non-Anderson Anderson film yet. Make sense? There's a lot more swearing in this than any of his other previous work, and there's a lot more references to sexuality and representations of naked human bodies. It makes you wonder how different his previous films might have been had he not had Owen Wilson or Jason Schwartzman or Noah Baumbach (his frequent co-writers) in the room with him. His distinctive style is still extremely evident however, nothing else has changed and that's a blessing because it makes The Grand Budapest Hotel another of his grand adventures made up of various minutia with a whole host of characters on board to deliver vital parts of the overriding story arc. I think that's one of the things I like most about Anderson's films: He always creates an entire town's worth of characters to create a grander scale in which to tell his story, rather than focusing on two central characters and only bringing in other characters for a spot of Basil Exposition.

With that being said, the lead character is played by an actor making his debut in an Anderson film, which is strange as the key roles are usually reserved for either his favoured co-collaborators or talented child actors making their debut. Alas, it falls to Ralph Fiennes to bring to life the eccentric Gustave H. and does so with aplomb. I never thought Fiennes had an ear for comedy, but perhaps all it took was the right script to convince him to step out of comfort zone and show another side of his acting skills. Along side him, Tony Revolori is the perfect straight man to compliment Fiennes' eccentric Gustave H. The pair of them share a great on-screen chemistry and it's evident they're enjoying the crazy adventure their characters go through as much as the audience did. Also along for the ride are a host of big name cameos, all of whom are surprisingly integral to the outcome of the film; there's no wastage here. Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, an uncredited Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Adrian Brody and a terrifying Willem Dafoe are all great in their unique roles. Also, as a side note, I believe that Anderson has found the perfect bumbling yet commanding authority figure for his cinematic universe in Edward Norton. In both this and Moonrise Kingdom, Norton played an authority figure who was clearly in charge, but bumbled and became likeable. Don't be shocked to see Norton re-appear in Anderson's next project.

I think one of the things I like most about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the structure of the narrative: It's a story within a story within a story within a story. That's four layers. The film is told as if being read from a book by a young girl. The book concerns a mysterious author relaying the story of when he visited the hotel as a young man. The younger version of the author then retells the story told to him by the owner of the hotel whom he met upon his visit; the older Zero. The older Zero then tells the story of how he came to acquire ownership of The Grand Budapest Hotel and, in turn, the story of his mentor and closest friend, Gustave H. Who else would be brave enough to layer a story like that? All of this occurs in the first 10 minutes, by the way, so no spoilers. It clearly shows Anderson's fondness for the medium of storytelling, how a story can be told and retold to generation after generation and still have the same effect if told the right way; something I dare say Anderson has now perfected. Aside from this, the film is told in chapters as if from a book, much like his other films, with title cards introducing the next 'part' or 'chapter' with a brief descriptive title. Anderson's films are like reading different novels by the same author: You know his distinctive style, all the characters seem like they should know one another, it's broken down into easily manageable chapters, and they all take place within the same unmistakeable universe. Literally, the Wes Anderson colour palette does not change, the hotel itself is immediately recognisable as an Anderson creation.

Overall, The Grand Budapest Hotel is such a lovely and charming film, I find it hard to fault it, although I am biased as a fan. (I even got a copy of his out-of-print book shipped from America. I could sell it on eBay for a high price!) The plot never gets overly complicated, even when the characters on-screen make it out to be so. The characters, numerous as they are, never overwhelm the action and fit right in to the tone and pace of the story. The dialogue is somewhat different to the usual Anderson fare but an intriguing change of direction for the director. It's his most adult film to date, but it still has a child-like mentality at heart. I'm fascinated to find out where he goes from here.

Rating: ****1/2

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