Sunday, April 6, 2014

Maintaining the illusion

For a long while, I wondered whether Wes Anderson’s familiar style - defined by, among other things, distinctive title fonts, bright colours, precise camera movements, chapter headings, a stark use of close-ups alternating with a “figures in a landscape” approach to framing elsewhere, a certain laconic terseness in the dialogue, an avoidance of over-emoting, and left-field musical choices – would ever count for more than pleasant eccentricity. When I reviewed The Darjeeling Limited almost a decade ago, I said it all “has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at.” I didn’t like that film, about three brothers on a “spiritual journey: his view of India seemed to me just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity. Since then though, the flavour has been flowing back. The animated Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed to me a wonderfully peculiar fantasy (and a bit oddly, his most fully realized examination of a fully complex community), and while his most recent Moonrise Kingdom sounded in outline like a rather regressive project – eschewing the mainland, the present day, and to a great extent adulthood – it carried a quite moving sense of melancholy and regret.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his best, further refining his methods, while opening up satisfying and highly promising new fronts. The film immediately emphasizes itself as a manufactured structure, operating at several layers of narrative distance: a modern-day tourist in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka stares at a statue of a great writer, from which we cut back some twenty years to the man himself, introducing a story that leaps back in turn to his younger days, and a visit to the dilapidated hotel of the title where an older man tells a tale that jumps back a third time, to a time when the establishment was at its peak, and he worked there as a lobby boy. The story revolves around the concierge Gustave H., a master embodiment of bygone style and refinement, whose tireless workload includes servicing many of the hotel’s elderly female guests (having developed a taste for “cheaper cuts of meat,” as he puts it). One of them amends her will to leave him a priceless painting; when she dies, savage intrigue engulfs the estate, and Gustave decides to steal the painting, kicking off a chain of events that includes his incarceration and subsequent escape, and a startling amount of murder and violence for an Anderson film (I think it also includes more profanity than any of his previous works, although of course each instance of it feels carefully considered).

Even by Anderson’s standards, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a marvel of tightly-wounded plotting – I could easily fill half my space here just trying to untangle the twists of the narrative (and the other half trying to convey the complexities of his conception of Gustave, superbly embodied by Ralph Fiennes, probably giving the most multi-dimensional performance in any Anderson work). Remarkably though, it never feels rushed – even when characters are only on screen for a sliver of time (which goes for most of them here), Anderson enables them to exhale, to fully occupy their moment. In this regard, his use of well-known actors in small roles, a potentially distracting indulgence, stands here as a fully achieved strategy.


At times, the film reminded me of a Howard Hawks work, underpinned by a sense of integrity and morality that allows immediate bonds to form between unlikely individuals (such as, in this case, a refined concierge and a group of violent criminals) while just as quickly stamping others as irredeemably weak, or downright hateful. At other times, rather remarkably, it struck me that Anderson might actually be a viable action filmmaker. The prison break is masterfully enacted, and a subsequent ski chase is legitimately exciting even as it emphasizes its own artificiality.

He broadens the film’s moral net by setting his tale against the outbreak of war, populated by eruptions of thuggery and by all the ethical murk that brings. It’s just a coincidence of course that the film ended up being released at a time when post-Soviet optimism for continued progress in Eastern Europe has taken a big hit. Still, perhaps for the first time, Anderson’s filmic language feels here like a valid tool not just for gazing beautifully inward, but for broader critique. Hotels in the grand tradition have always embodied society’s higher sense of itself, enacting a propriety swamped elsewhere by everyday grime (it’s no surprise that Anderson, a director who’s always seemed in search of something canonical, would eventually be drawn to such a setting). In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave’s extreme if quirky affinity for possibility, diversity and beauty extends the ethos of all-encompassing hospitality to a code for navigating the world. It may not be an easy one to implement – perhaps that’s in part why the story has to be placed at such levels of remove – but Anderson presents a worthy adult reverie, a work of engagement rather than of escape.

Wondrous grace

Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby says: “in this kind of errant spoof, design provides most of the meaning,” but concludes that the images “are merely pretty.” He sums up: “Knowingness and formalist whimsy should not, I think, be confused with art, or at least not with major art. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no more than mildly funny. It produces murmuring titters rather than laughter – the sound of viewers affirming their own acumen in so reliably getting the joke.” But on this occasion, it seems wrong-headed to conflate the film’s effectiveness as comedy with its cultural value as a whole. It’s true, I expect, that the movie doesnt often hit laugh-out-loud territory (my favourite moment in that regard involves how Gustave covers up the theft of the bland but supposedly priceless painting by replacing it with a trashily obscene one; probably not a new idea, but expertly executed), but on this occasion, there’s more to getting the film than getting the joke. It’s the first Anderson film that suggests the possibility of evolving beyond needing the jokes at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping them.

Summing up Gustave’s story, the narrator judges: “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but he certainly maintained the illusion with a wondrous grace.” It’s a poignant epitaph, in keeping with the reduced circumstances of the film’s present-day. But by evoking that vanished world so vividly, Anderson allows us to come out of the film with optimism: that it might not merely have been an illusion, that the act of remembering and recreating – despite or perhaps even because of the whimsicality of its execution - might allow something to be regained.

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