Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

A fastidious hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who’s a hit with the elderly ladies is willed a priceless masterpiece of a painting when a dowager (Tilda Swinton in baroque old age makeup) inevitably expires. He hasn’t got any time to enjoy it thanks to the machinations of a moustache-twirling evil heir (Adrien Brody) and his violent henchman (Willem Dafoe), but you have about over 90 minutes to savour a carefully-crafted comic caper.

Set in 1932 (framed by a Russian doll, tale-within-a-tale sequence), much of The Grand Budapest Hotel is narrated by Zero, the former lobby boy and protege of the celebrated concierge (F Murray Abraham in the framing tale, Tony Revolori in the main sequence). His comic caper is tinged with nostalgia and longing, being set in the fictional Mittleuropean state of Zubrowka in the interwar period where people could forget that life itself would never be the same again, keep up the illusion of civilisation, empire, and civility, in the face of things actually falling apart at the periphery, outside their bubble of a world.

This caper, fittingly, is a pastiche, flitting between genres, narrative techniques, mise-en-scene of films from the 1920s to the early 1940s. There is the elaborate sexual caper set in a grand hotel that is evocative of Ophuls and Lubitsch, a German Expressionist chase through a museum using just lights and exaggerated shadows, a prison escape sequence that recalls The Great Escape but involving a far more circuitous and amusing route, and of course that shaggy dog story and wild goose chase involving a painting that might have been out of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And not to mention the continual comic references to the previous film roles of the cast: Goldblum gets his fingers cut off like The Fly, F Murray Abraham narrates a long-gone era like Salieri in Amadeus, Edward Norton plays his inspector like an overaged Boy Scout from Moonrise Kingdom, while the sinister henchman Willem Dafoe plays is constantly filmed in under-lit scenes recalling his turn as Count Orlock in Shadow of the Vampire.

The silly caper, the genre pastiche, and the comic references all hang together somehow, some say because of Wes Anderson’s meticulous, precise approach to set design, screen composition, and devotion to the long panning shot. Rather, it is due to Anderson’s vision and Anderson’s realisation that this vision is allied with Ralph Fienne’s concierge. Murray’s grown-up lobby boy has this to say about his former boss, but it could equally be said for Wes Anderson’s film, which ultimately must be seen as an allegory for the art of filmmaking itself: “His world had vanished long before he had entered it. But I must say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”

Or if you like, The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds because it is a film that a fan of cinema would make as an attempt to learn filmmaking. It is an exercise in replicating the look and feel of different cinematic genres and conventions, and sewing all these disparate homages, pastisches, and spoofs into the space of one single narrative. It is a love letter to cinema, and highly entertaining when done right—which is exactly what Wes Anderson has achieved.

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