Tuesday, 15 April 2014

CAPER FILM: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (UK/ Germany, 2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe

When I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom over a year ago, I complained that it was hard to form strong emotional bonds with the characters because the entire film felt overly choreographed. While Wes Anderson's brilliance as a cinematic craftsman was never in any doubt, it all felt a little too tightly controlled to pass muster as a genuinely heartwarming story about young love and free spirits. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally meticulous in its craft, but it is a much better vehicle for Anderson. Its status as a caper comedy places a much more conscious emphasis on the various plot machinations, allowing him to show off his knowledge and affection for cinema without undermining or overshadowing his characters. The result is a very funny slice of finely-tuned frivolity which finds Anderson almost back to his best.
 
As with all of Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks absolutely beautiful. There is the same powdery quality to the colour scheme as in Moonrise Kingdom, but the emphasis has shifted from summery yellows and woody browns to darker, more regal blues and frothy pinks. Anderson's compositions are as meticulous as ever, and the film utilises many of his familiar tricks, such as symmetrical wide shots, carefully timed circular pans and quirky model shots.
 
As with all of Anderson's films, however, there are unusual narrative quirks which can sometimes threaten to make the experience too arch and alienating to bond with the characters. In this case, there is his device of handing over the telling of the story from one person to another. The film begins with a lady reading a book in front of a statue of Tom Wilkinson; then Wilkinson (the author of the book) hands over to Jude Law (his younger self); then Law talks to F. Murray Abraham, who finally begins to recount his memories.
 
It's easy to understand the point that Anderson is making through this device. He is positively besotted with the art of storytelling and is trying to convey that love through a visual medium rather than a literary one. There's also a sly nod with the casting of Abraham, since Amadeus employed a similar device of its main character recounting the story in his old age. But while this device is affectionate, it is not entirely necessary to the story being told, and your enjoyment therein will depend on whether you regard it as an apt demonstration of passion or a needless indulgence.
 
To some extent, this dilemma is presented in the visuals of the film. While the main action takes place in the early-1930s, with the horrors of World War II still far away, the introduction takes place in the late-1960s. Interwar opulence and luxury is counterpointed with Soviet-era functionality, and by repeating mechanical actions in both periods (such as the strange transport to the hotel), an air of decline and melancholy quickly descends upon proceedings.
 
Having created an intriguing mood, Anderson gives us a number of quirky, interesting characters with whom we bond and whom we find very funny. Much of the praise has deservedly centred on Ralph Fiennes, who is absolutely brilliant as Gustave H.. The performance works because he believes so deeply in the character on a dramatic level; Fiennes' chops give Gustave a sense of weight and purpose which an out-and-out comic actor might not have achieved. It's an irresitible blend of whimsy, pathos, elegance and mischief, and may be one of the best of Fiennes' illustrious career.
 
As I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review, much of the pleasure of Anderson's films comes from him getting performances out of actors that no-one would have expected. It's not too much of a stretch to have Willem Dafoe as a thug in knuckle-dusters, or Jeff Goldblum as a stuffy, by-the-book lawyer (who ends up losing his fingers). But it is a pleasant surprise to see Adrian Brody as the villain of the piece, or Tilda Swinton as Gustave's elderly lover whose death sets off the entire caper.
 
In executing the caper aspect of the film, Anderson plays a very crafty trick. The quirkiness of his characters leads us to accept that they will speak in a manner which is different to our own; we accept this within the first five minutes as part of the overall style. This quirkiness allows him to have characters delivering exposition at break-neck speed, and yet it feels like a long joke rather than plot details.
 
There are numerous scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel which are just characters reciting plot exposition directly to camera, something that would have been roundly lambasted had the film been helmed by another director. But rather than do as Hitchcock did and "sugar-coat" exposition with suspense, Anderson deliberately draws attention to it and uses it to celebrate the caper genre in all its ridiculousness. It's not so much hidden in plain sight as a Brechtian device, with the film constantly reminding you of its artificiality.
 
This is further reflected in the film's set-pieces. Take the hysterically funny sledging sequence, in which Gustave and Zero chase Jopling down a slalom course and ski jump, ending with Zero flinging Jopling off a cliff. The close-ups are achieved with the Hollywood technique of back projection, while the aerial shots are consciously done with detailed scale models. It's arguably just a massive Hitchcock reference, looking back to the skiing scene in the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
 
Like Bertolt Brecht's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel draws our attention to the artificial, mechanical nature of the story in order to illuminate some deeper, universal truth. On top of being a great, frothy caper, the film is about the passing of an age and with it a particular kind of character. Gustave is characterised throughoutt as being the last of a breed, someone already out of sorts in his own time and longing for release. The film presents its own fictional take on the build-up to World War II, with Gustave coming across like a lighter, more dandyish companion to Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade's End.
The true success of Anderson's film is that it allows you to enjoy it on whichever level you please. It operates on the same principle as Gladiator: it is both a philosophical exploration of death, morality and a life beyond this, and two hours of people hitting each other. You can read into The Grand Budapest Hotel's colour schemes, seeing the pink motif as a symbol of faded passion and sexuality, or you can just sit there laughing louder and louder at the brilliant action. Both responses are valid, and while the film is not as deep as Gladiator, it deserves praise for achieving this balance. 
The Great Budapest Hotel sees Anderson returning to form, delivering a film whose whimsy and quirkiness is anchored and balanced by enjoyable, empathetic characters. While some will still balk at his approach to storytelling, and it isn't as thematically rich as perhaps it could have been, it is still an immensely enjoyable, funny and rewarding watch. It is a good way to introduce newcomers to Anderson's signature style, and is the most enjoyable film of the year to date.

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NEXT REVIEW: Stardust (2007)

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