a zoo in hell


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Absurd Symmetries: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"


I suppose it would be a bit controversial to say that Wes Anderson films are similar to cinema by other auteurs such as David Lynch or the Coen Brothers. On the surface, the worlds of Lynch and Anderson are universes apart, but their fundamental DNA is not that distinct. Both filmmakers create worlds to contain their stories, and those worlds only use the visual language of consensual reality to wrap their narratives in sense. Lynch's worlds are every bit as idiosyncratic and artificial as Wes Anderson's. They are equally artful, as well.

While most of Wes Anderson's films deal with separation and alienation of some sort, whether it by culture or family, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is drawn in much darker, wider, strokes than the earlier works. While all of his films are whimsy and fairy, this is one that is closer to the original works of Grimm than Disney.

In a story within a story, the owner of the Grand Budapest, Mr. "Zero" Moustafa relates how he came to be the owner.  By explaining the adventures of M. Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest during the twilight war years, he ties the fate of the hotel in with the whole trajectory of pre-Nazi Europe.

M. Gustave is a "flamboyant" character who also privately entertains the wealthy ladies he meets during the course of his duties. One of these ladies mentions him in her will, and this puts him afoul of the more evil branches of her well-to-do clan. One thing leads to another, and he hasto prove his innocence while surviving the fall into fascism all around him. This is a long and treacherous road, and there is much more violence, though still a bit cartoonish, then any of Anderson's other films. The nods to Kubrick's "The Shining" are not out of place in this world.

Performance in a Wes Anderson film is a mannered thing. As an actor you have two roles, that of the character you play and that of the character as it exists in Anderson's peculiar world of choice. You can't be angry, you have to be Wes Anderson angry. Most of the actors embody this attitude in the most entertaining ways, finding sympathy and pathos in even the most caricatured moments. Willem Dafoe (Jopling) recalls his Nosferatu performance from Shadow of the Vampire, but develops it with fascist undertones. Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustave) is larger-than-life but never ridiculous. Much of what he does is quite funny, but it is never played too much for laughs. His romantic idealism, his perfumed world, is the emotional heart of the entire film. Adrien Brody (Dmitri) is the Goldfinger to Dafoe's Oddjob. He's a spastic sort of evil mastermind, and there's a kind of raw savagery in everything he does which I've never seen in a Brody performance previously. All this despite the villain mustache.

There are the usual parade of cameos in this movie, but they are pleasantly paced and inspire a sense of "grandness" and scope for this story. This is an all-star cast, but a lo-fi presentation without the subtle fanfare of a film like "The Monuments Men". There are plenty of stars, but none of them outshine the light at the center of the narrative.

A Wes Anderson film is about Wes Anderson, of course. (I suppose a Michael Bay film is about Michael Bay, too, but we don't want to think what the means, do we?) He likes to be different, perhaps in a precious art school way, but there is a consistency to his vision. What separates his filmmaking from any number of earnest hipsters, is the fact that is balanced and symmetrical world is deeply off kilter and out of order. His harmonious compositions reflect a disharmony and brokeness. The Wes Anderson vanishing point, the focal point, is dead center, but that is really a distraction. This is slight-of-hand, we are watching one thing while being lead into another entirely. This technique is most effective here, drawing out the space between the cartoon malevolence and the truth only increases awareness of both.

Stylistically, Wes Anderson uses much of his old tricks; miniature work, animation, pushes and pulls, long horizontal tracking shots, and a very conscious framing throughout. Interestingly, he breaks form on a few occasions and I was relieved to see him pushing against his own style. There are some edits which navigate cinematic space in a way he doesn't usually do, and some of the camera work and placement is unsymmetrical. I don't know what this means in the larger design of his creation, but it is worth noting.

You could make the connection between the faded glory of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Hollywood itself, but that would be one of many possible subtextual readings. I suppose that the most useful way to see this film is to understand that even in the perfectly ordered world of Wes Anderson's Zubrowka, things are falling apart, falling into ruin and the center cannot hold any better than in our real world. This perfection he presents, this intelligent design, is merely an illusion which adorns the truth like a long abandoned wild west set sits in the desert. By attempting to disguise the truth, it merely draws that very thing into vibrant and brilliant relief. This is a perfectly framed picture that is really a window into chaos.