CINEMA: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
A fantastical world suffused with melancholy
, June 7, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel (rated M) is reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quirky film. It manages to be a homage to the literature and cinema of the early 20th century, while also sending them up in an affectionate way. It has its humour, as well as its pathos, which it manages to treat with a lightness that is not flippant.
Ralph Fiennes as the Grand Budapest
Hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave H.
The film begins with a girl going to a cemetery to the monument of a writer in the (fictional) middle-European country of Zubrowka. She begins to read from his novel, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the film cuts back to 1985 with the writer himself (Tom Wilkinson) reciting his work to camera.
The film cuts back again to 1968 with the young writer (this time Jude Law) narrating about the time he went to stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
While there, he meets its owner, the enigmatic Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who offers to tell him the story of how he came to own the hotel.
Over dinner the tale begins, and the film cuts back again to 1932, when Zero is just a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who is taken under the wing of the eccentric, and charming, concierge of the Grand Budapest, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
We enter a world that is both unreal and familiar; a world of high class and flexible morals, of great style and great poverty, a world on the brink of war, while maintaining a sheen of gentility and civilisation.
It is a fantastical world that comes from the adventurous and dashing cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, suffused with the melancholy that characterises the writing of such as Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann — that is, of old school, high-class European intellectuals who clashed with the simplistic worldview of militaristic dictatorships.
Wes Anderson makes movies that are best described as “quirky”. His characters tend to have a youthful taste for adventure and grandeur, but they come into contact with a world that is much more brutal than their visions suggest. His youths tend to be precocious and his grown-ups tend to have a childish streak, tempered with a weariness that makes them more like caricatures.
Monsieur Gustave is a beautifully mannered Olde Worlde gentleman full of honour and charm; but he also has a tendency to slip into profanities, and is full of insecurity. He is both brave and “the most liberally perfumed man”, with a taste bordering on addiction for his favourite cologne.
Zero, on the other hand, is a young man seeking to make himself older. He cannot grow a moustache, so he draws one on. He presents himself with the earnestness of someone who wants to be taken seriously, but cannot help but be a boy. He has had little choice but to grow up fast, as his family was killed in war and he has become a refugee.
The movie has an intricate design. Each era’s visuals match the image we have of that era — from the brutalisations of today, to the sickly fake tech of the 1980s, to the decaying grandeur of Europe in the 1960s, to the decadent charm of the 1930s. Each era also shows itself as a time of transition. War is coming in the ’30s; the Olde Worlde is not yet completely gone in the ’60s; the ’80s are in the process of redecoration; and the current era is a graffitied, bombed-out hotchpotch.
The visuals draw attention to the artificiality of cinema, and the fact that this is a film of stories within stories. What looks like papier-mâché miniatures are used to depict the externals of the Olde Worlde. The breaks, which at dramatic points cut back to the “present”, and the continual narration remind the audience that this is a story where the events have already passed and will not change.
The cinematography and editing draw on the visual language of the silent movies with their use of title cards and obvious transitions, as well as the Expressionist style of film-making pioneered by the Germans, with its angles and shadows and image composition, that implies the subconscious and was thereupon absorbed into Western filmmaking through film noir.
These artifices highlight the whimsy of Wes Anderson’s vision, while not detracting from his portrayal of pathos and tragedy, which offers an almost stoic approach to the happenings of life.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, like all of Anderson’s work, is a love-it-or-hate-it film. Either one likes the world he presents and can connect with it, or not.
It is a proof that while there may be principles on which one can judge art, the one that matters most to the individual is his or her gut reaction. That ultimately it is a matter of taste, and that taste remains stubbornly individualistic. It is an opportunity to disagree graciously.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).