Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (SP)

The opening fifteen minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel make clear just how far removed from reality Wes Anderson intends his film to be. We’re first shown a teenage girl reading a book about the titular hotel, which triggers a flashback to the 1960s where the author of the book (Jude Law) talks about his experiences staying there. He then meets the owner of the hotel (F. Murray Abraham) who proceeds to tell him the story of his childhood working as a lobby boy, which in turn prompts yet another flashback.   

This is where the framing devices end and the film proper begins. In it we follow concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as he presides meticulously over his beloved hotel during the 1930s, a time when Zubrowka – the Eastern European country in which the hotel is situated, the fictionality of which places the film at yet another remove from reality – is on the brink of war. But, like the film itself, Gustave is less interested in this wider historical event than he is the wellbeing of his customers, particularly Madame D (a startlingly old-looking Tilda Swanton), who dies in suspicious circumstances upon leaving the hotel. It transpires that she changed her will to leave the priceless painting ‘Boy With Apple’ to Gustave, much to her son’s (Adrien Brody) fury and the police’s suspicion. So begins a madcap cat and mouse adventure that pastiches the style of Hollywood films made in the decade the film is set. 

All this knowing artificiality and disregard for the real world will be familiar to those who have seen Anderson’s other films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is true to form with its off-beat humour, fleeting star cameos and sense of whimsy. The hotel itself is an archetypal Anderson construct, a miniature world in which the film hermetically lives in. The first establishing shots of its exterior display it as an intricately assembled beautiful toy house (see the poster on the right), which sets the tone for the film’s obsessive attention to detail as well as Anderson’s Kubrickian compulsion for symmetry.

Like Kubrick, this style gives the film a cold feeling that makes it difficult to emotionally engage with, but, generally unlike Kubrick, Anderson’s intention is primarily comedic rather than tragic. Typically, this comedy is off-beat and deadpan, which goes some way to explaining why Anderson is such a cult director. Sense of humour is one of the most divisive of tastes, and to extract maximum enjoyment from The Grand Budapest Hotel you really have to be in tune with Anderson’s. 

Nevertheless, there are aspects that transcend Anderson’s tropes. The casting of Ralph Fiennes in a rare comic role turns out to be an inspired choice, as he steals the show with his perfect comic timing, delivered in a camp manner that is at once engagingly charismatic and not over-the-top. But to non-Anderson devotees, the brief appearances from the likes of Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum are more distracting than anything else, while all the female roles are frustratingly underwritten.

Like the lovingly made, extravagant cakes that contribute to the rich tapestry of The Grand Budapest Hotel, this film is an acquired taste, the pleasures of which are lost on this particular reviewer. Everything feels too detached and frivolous, particularly considering the context of world wars against which the film is vaguely set. But Wes Anderson fans will no doubt find this one of the auteur’s best works yet, and any film fans will still admire the craft and single-mindedness with which he infuses his filmmaking. 


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