Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Shall I yet learn love?


Everyone who knows me and has heard me ranting like a tramstop psycho about how much I hate Wes Anderson's films will be intoning Wha!? after their own fashion. More on that later.

Set in the fictitious country, Europe, east of centre, of Zubrowka, this is the tale of how legendary concierge Gustav H. who pampers the rich and wintry dowagers among his guests to a sexual extent and is rewarded after the death of one with a priceless painting from her collection. The remainder of her family are stirred to jealous action. A chase and fun ensue.

To his credit, Wes Anderson has crafted an enjoyable tale that moves at a clip and doesn't flab out in the third act while he struggles both resolution and attempts to smuggle great clanking deus ex machina moments past his audience. It's pretty good. Why am I being so nice? Why did I pay for a cinema ticket and choctop tax and sit in the dark with a lot of other people on a beautiful autumn day in Melbourne to watch what I expected, from the execrable trailer I endured for the past summer, to be dreck? Well, I suspected, from some varying reviews, that it would have its good points.

Here they are:

Ralph Fiennes. He plays a campy Ronald Coleman, the kind of Ronald Coleman we might have seen on screen if he'd been allowed more of himself there; intimidatingly urbane but equanimitous, an observer of strict protocol but no snob in real world situations. This would fail without Fiennes or someone from the very very few like him. Just as he made the bad guy in Schindler's List the most magnetic thing on screen he inhabits the solar centre here. This is because for all the literary quirks of the character, for all his fussiness here and resignation there his words and actions feel natural. Anderson has gone for the same kind of thing as the butler in Arthur (John Gielgud breaking his gravitas with blunt swearing) but Feinnes refuses to surrender to the cheapness of the ploy and plays his expletives the same way he played them as Amon Goeth, as though that's what he'd say anyway. What this loses in laughs it gains in sympathy and in a film so long on artificial charm and so short on the natural variety, this is a golden hen's tooth.

Narrative tropes: We begin the film by going through a series of spheres of narrative as a young literary pilgrim hangs a hotel key on to the monument to the writer of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel that glitters with them. She then sits on a bench nearby and reads that tome which has a cover of a pink we shall see again. As she reads we hear the voice of the middle aged author who turns into Tom Wilkinson attempting to film an introduction to it which gives way to his younger self, Jude Law, who is told the story of the film by the Hotel's owner, Zero Mustapha (F. Murray Abraham), of how he came to own the hotel. In this sphere, the narration goes beyond the conventional voiceover to sound like the written word. When a character says a line it is followed in Law's voice by something like, "he said."

See what I did there? I put the bit that describes the speech in quotes. I am clever. Well, I am reporting cleverness, he wrote.

This is a film as much about storytelling as it is about nostalgia and the passing of epochs. Perhaps because of this Anderson has reigned in his urges to destroy his own narratives with mishandled final acts and keeps the tale moving at a clip. This film, unlike any other of his, is never sluggish (fans would use the word lackadaisical there).

Cineform. Anderson represents the different eras or spheres of the tale with appropriate aspect ratio. For the 1930s it's the 4X3(ish) academy ratio. For the 1960s it's scope (2.35:1) and for the present day it's the more standard 1.85:1 (the majority of cinema releases but also, cleverly, the shape of contemporary tv screens). This kind of time/form mix has usually been highlighted by contrasts between black and white and colour and even different colour timing. Anderson keeps as much as he can centre screen and the changes are, remarkably for him, as unobtrusive as the reel-end cigarette burns were in the film projection aeon. Anderson presents one and only one scene in black and white and its well chosen (by recalling Schindler's list, apart from anything else).

 Evocation: Anderson has created a Europe that never could have existed but feels comfortable and so appealing that we are lulled into a kind of cinematic paralysis as we watch. This is in evocation of the kind of film Hollywood studios set in Europe in the 1930s, a filmic space to indulge in alien traditions of privilege and rebellion and to meet forces like fascism with cheekiness and win. It's strange but filtered through familiarity. The signs we read are in English. Zero's uniform cap bears the words Lobby Boy. Everyone speaks English in their own accents: Adrien Brody is a harsh NYC, Fiennes is a natural sounding uppercrust English, Tony Revolori is all LA as the young Zero but F. Murray Abraham is cultured Manhattan as the older Zero, and so on including, delightfully, Saorise Ronan in her native Irish lilt. This is Lubistch's Warsaw in To Be or Not to Be or Design for Living. It's Chaplin's Vienna in The Great Dictator. The evocations are pointed and, for once with this director, entirely appropriate. And they work.

And here's what bothered me:

While the calling of the old cinema to stand in for a sense of loss is poignant and effective, at the edges there's something else going on that made me wince. Every time I saw characters as cartoony silhouettes scurrying down steps against obvious backdrops or flagrant use of models or anything that pushed the vintage cart out a little further I recognised something I wish I hadn't. Each of those moments, and there are many, feels not like the innovation of a familiar scheme, a cineartiste improving on tradition, but a style lift from someone else whose profile is low enough for it not to be noticed. I just kept thinking of the name Guy Maddin.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been making feature films since the 1980s which blend the look of silent cinema expertly with an earthy worldliness which feels contemporary. The result is startling. A glittering ice nymph might emerge from a night sky made of black velvet and sequins, look around her and say: "well, fuck me." The thing is that in Maddin's realm that is not meant to draw a belly laugh, more a wry smile, and any serious themes will emerge as they need to through the weird stark kind of camp. They do emerge and in a setting as alien as Eraserhead still is, and we are visiting a strange new world. Everything in a Maddin film is as obssessively placed as anything out of an Anderson one and you are meant to notice and respond but Maddin's films end up feeling more rewarding because they feel truer. His cinema seems a happy coincidence between therapy for compulsion and real joyous expression. Anderson's feel like a beg for approval.

I've always thought the Pascal's wager of post-modernism (it works whether you get it or not just like this phrase) was a twee evasion. Wes Anderson's po-mo grated with me because it always felt try-hard. And, more immediately, his films played for me like the guy who finally hears the latest joke and tells it in its tatters as though it's fresh. His big jokey setups are so intent on impressing that you can hear the old collapsable telescope creaking. Yes, he knows his Nouvelle Vague and his Preston Sturges. Yes, he knows his British Invasion b-sides. Yes, he can arrange all of them into tableaux that drone with overarticulate dialogue. But what does it amount to beyond a few adolescent themes masked by good casting?

For me it amounts to wasted time, his and mine, as attention-deficit whining like Rushmore, Royal Tennenbaums or Life Aquatic push out their increasingly sludged up flows. Anderson isn't the Kubrick of quirk, as I heard one reviewer declare, he's its Michael Bay, delivering the mightest and most powerful form of tweeness since .... his last one. That's what I saw in the trailer that infuriated me so much but drove me to at least see if my hatred would endure. Would I be charmed by this critics' darling and mooted contemporary master?

Well, no. This film is mildly enjoyable but consistently so. The charms it offers are like the cakes and pastries in the little pink boxes that litter its screen, pretty, perfectly sugared and textured, impressive as artifacts, and utterly unpalatable to those without a sweet tooth. Ralph Fiennes' Ronald Coleman riff just makes me want to see a Ronald Coleman film. Grand Budapest Hotel makes me want to see any of the films it evokes rather than it ever again. It's enjoyable. No, it's the best Wes Anderson film yet but coming frmo me that only means I didn't find it infurating or wearisome three quarters of the way through. Faint praise? Faint film. Sometimes faint is what you want. Well, faint is what this is. Enjoyable. Faint. Oh, good, here's my tram.

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