Berlin Review: Wes Anderson's 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Starring Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jude Law & More

Reviews
by Jessica Kiang
February 6, 2014 3:00 PM
8 Comments
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"The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Love. There are points during “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which celebrates its World Premiere as the opening film of 64th Berlinale tonight, at which it simply floods off the screen. It sounds too lofty perhaps, but how else can you describe the level of minute care that seems to have gone into every single frame, every costume, every tear in every strip of wallpaper? If nothing else (and there is quite a lot else) the film is at times perhaps the apotheosis of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic: a glorious, mischievous sequence of pictorialist plays taking place in a world so perfectly contained it might as well be in a snowglobe. This trademark fetishistic detail makes it feel like it was somehow loved into being, and, for whole passages, we loved it right back, giddily grinning in the dark, already mentally marking out those moments when we’re going to have to hit pause to examine the background, the edge of the frame, the action that happens in the corner of your eye. But as off-kilter affecting as we found its nostalgia for a world of charm and dash that really only ever existed in the movies, and as terrific as almost all of the performances are, as a whole package it fell just slightly short of the promise of its parts. Especially in the final third, when the pace seems to lag and the frenetic joyous inventiveness of what’s gone before slows, we found ourselves experiencing what we can only describe as a slight comedown. Perhaps that’s only relative, because it took us so high, but in a film that already felt longer than it is, we found ourselves unwillingly released from its initial spell too long before the end credits rolled.

But let's hold off on that a moment. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka (a very fine bison-grass vodka IRL), the film displays an unbelievably precise, irreverent and occasionally very funny eye for the minutiae of a vaguely Germanic, vaguely Eastern European country marked by recognizable, if allegorical 20th century history. (Indeed the Germans in the audience seemed to get a big kick out of some of the in-jokes that went over our heads.) From Belle Epoque throwback through the rise of fascism, to the influence of communism, there is nothing that a perfectly dry sight gag or production design nuance can’t evoke here. And as we all already know, it also deals in different aspect ratios and occasional black-and-white, depending on period, which is an affectation neither as integral to the experience as we might have thought nor as self-conscious as we might have feared. So essentially not only does Anderson create a country here, he creates a parallel, but slightly crazy-mirror version of history too, all delivered through the prism of Golden Age Hollywood comedies—we truly cannot fault his ambition.

There are in fact four time frames represented in the film, but like a pink cake box that falls open, perfectly flat, at the pull of a ribbon, it dispenses with the present-day shell quickly and efficiently and in maybe the least original way possible: with the opening and closing of a book, entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” We’re then introduced to the writer of the book in the 1980s (Tom Wilkinson) and then in the 1960s (Jude Law). It is the story that the 1960s author is told (by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham), while staying in the gloriously-rendered faded grandeur of a baroque hotel gone to seed under a communist regime, that forms the bulk of the film. This 1930s segment is where we are introduced to the film’s real hero, M.Gustav (Ralph Fiennes), as he romances rich old ladies, mentors young refugee lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and runs the Grand Budapest to a rigidly perfectionist, and already outdated, code of discretion and honor. When one of his elderly “patronesses” is murdered (Tilda Swinton in some of the best old-lady makeup we’ve ever seen), and Gustav is left a priceless painting, the stage is set for a series of chases, prison breaks, cable car rides and other screwball-ish adventures, sprinkled of course with supporting performances and cameos from an absolutely stellar cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman. The roles may be small but again, they are as loved as anything else in this dollhouse world of Anderson’s. In fact, it occurred to us that perhaps one of the director's greatest talents is in character introductions—the skewering detail, the tiny performance moment that always creates something cherished even when screen time is minimal, and usually while six other things are going on at the same time.

But it’s also the seeds of the film’s (slight) undoing. After the introductions have all happened and the plot now has to go through the business of unfolding we are suddenly on, essentially, a grand caper, that starts to feel episodic and a little empty, especially when Zero and Gustav are away from the fabulous interiors of the stately homes and hotels that are clearly Gustav’s natural element. And the wild goose chase feel isn't helped by the film’s villains, who are given a few neat character moments earlier on (we’re particularly fond of Willem Dafoe and the cat), before becoming very cartoonish in the latter stages. There are still plenty of passing pleasures, but unlike earlier, they don’t seem to be coming at you from all sides and when small things snag your attention (like what we believe is a kind of annoying cheat in the cable car section) it’s hard not to assume that Anderson’s heart is elsewhere. The shame is that it’s in the nature of being told a story to care more about the end than the beginning, as it’s the part you’re left with and the part that dictates the mood in which you’re sent out into the cold. So the slackening of the pace from the third quarter onward is an issue; a slow climb down from a giddy high to, not quite a crash, but certainly the beginning of the end of the sugar rush.

Retrospectively, there is a thematic reason for this change in pace; despite the madcappery, this is probably Anderson’s most melancholic film. M Gustav is referred to as a man out of time, even in his own time; he is dainty, elegant, he is suave (if also unexpectedly profane—all the character’s notes are hit absolutely perfectly by Fiennes, who is perhaps the film’s revelation). Gustav is a representative of a "dying breed of civility in a time of encroaching barbarity," and he is the hero not because he is the man of the hour or even of the decade, but because, as the older Zero lovingly recounts, “he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace”—and it’s hard not to think of Anderson himself in these terms. This, coupled with the film’s meditations on aging and the simple, sad truth that time passes and people die and cherished worlds decay, is where we get to, leaving behind the Lubitschian hijinks of earlier. It is a gear shift downward, and if it can't help but feel deflating overall, there is still something sweet in the film’s sadness. Anderson may make you crave, the way he clearly does, the kind of world in which preternaturally gifted pastry chefs turn every cake into a work of art, or fussy concierges have a secret society populated entirely by the best practitioners of their profession. It is indeed a strange thing to feel a little sad at the absence of something that you never had, but where on earth in the real world might we ever encounter such craft, such dedication to beauty, such attention to detail? Perhaps nowhere, except in a Wes Anderson movie. [B+]

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8 Comments

  • Jimbo | March 2, 2014 9:34 AMReply

    I just saw this (wonderful) movie. What's the cheat you think you saw in the cable car sequence? Whatever it is, I missed it, and absolutely loved that bit.

  • Marc Schenker | February 14, 2014 8:20 PMReply

    My God, is this a preface to a book? You can't do a movie review in, oh, 800 words. Ok, good review, can't wait to see it, etc. Economy! It's the stuff of clarity!

  • TAB | February 14, 2014 9:13 AMReply

    Thoroughly insightful and pertinent review. I think people like/dislike Wes Anderson, but what cannot be contested is that he's an exceptional film maker. The Royal Tenenbaums/Life Aquatic are indie masterpieces, and that set a precedent and expectation to Wes Anderson flicks which is incredibly difficult to follow, especially if WA's creative objectives shifted, god forbid want to try something new.

    Although I concede, there is definitely an issue with pace in his movies, whether someone likes or dislikes is kind of irrelevant. It's opinion, and you know... everyone's got one. He is a master film maker with a definitive style. Just look at the cast of Grand Budapest. Casts of that calibre don't flock to anyone but a master craftsman.

    WA plays with space. Not just in the structure of scenes and performances, but emotional space. There is a detachment in his work which some can find alienative, a nihilism which could be interpreted as indifference.

    I find his films very moving, from Bottle Rocket to Moonrise Kingdom. He achieves poignancy and emotional engagement that is very relevant to my generation. There is something of the loss if innocence through experience, the imagination as our inner child, and a tremendous sense of play and fun.

    Plus the sumptuous vibrancy of his films aesthetically is a celebration of life. I do admit, WA scripts need the hell cut out of them. They could be a lot tighter, and paced with more crescendo in mind. But then they wouldn't be a WA film I guess. I can identify plenty of opportunities to chop reams from most of his films.

    He is shielding this sense of innocence, imagination and play, in a market where the masses are addicted to violence-porn and 'based on a true story' suffering dross. If he slips under the radar and falls into the 'dislike' opinion pile of people on the way, then that's OK by me. I am pretty sure it'd be Ok with him as well, as he persists working at the highest level. I am looking forward to the film immensely.

    One question: you mentioned in the review that Ralph Fiennes was (possibly) the biggest revelation. Then you don't pick up on that. Are you suggesting that RF was an unknown entity as lead for this film? RF is one of the most gifted screen actors working today, so am keen to get some more exposition about the revelation…

  • Leigh | February 7, 2014 4:49 AMReply

    You seem to be trying to convince yourself that you like it more than you actually do. Is this because it is a Wes Anderson film? It's okay, you don't have to act like you like it if you really don't like it just because you didn't get what this "great" auteur was trying to do. He really is not that awesome. Actually, he's quite emotionally shallow as a filmmaker. His best film was "Bottle Rocket", his first film. Owen Wilson was awesome. Since then, Wes (nor Owen, for that matter) has made anything nearly as moving, for the most part.

  • az | February 7, 2014 5:00 PM

    I was about to ask someone to tell me what I missed in Moonrise Kingdom then found out it's not just me. I abandoned MK after forty minutes, had no feeling for the whole twee, mannered, styled to the point of cartoon vibe. Just couldn't find a way in, but folk love him so happy to hear what I'm missing.

  • Dave | February 7, 2014 10:53 AM

    I agree that Anderson's films are shallow. I stopped watching them after Darjeeling since I no longer want to fall for that trap. Tarantino is now on that list too.

  • Dan | February 7, 2014 9:51 AM

    Nah I find Tenenbaums, Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom actually quite moving.

  • Stefan Zweig | February 6, 2014 5:42 PMReply

    Dear Jessica:
    As a citizen of Zubrowka, and, therefore, raised in another language, I may be totally wrong, but couldn't you have sent out one of those many 'we's to check the difference between 'affection' and 'affectation' ?

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