Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson's film have nearly always harboured in them a sad sense of loss, a melancholic glance at an enterprise and/or person fallen from great heights and majesty. Just think of the departed mothers and fathers of Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, the flailing dynasty of The Royal Tenenbaums, and Steve Zissou tragically looking to regain past glories, literally cast out in a sea of bereavement. Anderson's latest further looks into these themes while divulging once again the director's fascination with the art of storytelling, entering further into his own painfully designed fantasy world perhaps more than ever before. 

Spanning many decades but largely told over the span of two fictional versions of the First and Second World Wars, the story centres around the fine Grand Budapest Hotel and its concierge - Mr. Gustav H - played by Ralph Fiennes on barnstorming comical form. The happenings of the once legendary hotel and its passionately loving high servant is told from the aged eyes of Mr. Zero Moustafa, once a young lobby boy trained under the scrutinous command of Gustav. But that's not all, as even the frail Moustafa's account of his youth is recounted by a young writer (Jude Law) who goes on to publish a book on these memoirs. The film opens with the older author (Tom Wilkinson) reading from his praised work of the man's life he was once lucky enough to have access to. Anderson's penchant for theatrics and the joy of storytelling has never been felt more than here in this multilayered recounting of a past-era and a man whose greatness lies in the memory and heart of a once young upstart.

Mr. Gustav H is a professional at heart and in the hands of these storytellers is held up as if the greatest concierge whom ever existed; his work treated like a dance as he swans from room to room, seeing to needs before they've even arisen in the guest's minds. But he's not quite the professional one presumes from the start, he harbours a 'playful' streak that involves the seduction and obtained adoration of the hotel's various rich (and elderly) female clients. It seems innocent enough through the light nature of Gustav's charms yet this dark vice, or materialistic streak of his, is never fully explored and is merely a subjective footnote we're left to mull over.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a strange mix of tones and it's in the marvellous use of shading that marks its biggest success. The wafer thin plotting of a will left by one of Gustav's matrons and the subsequent war waged by her enraged son goes hand-in-hand with the audacious Python-esque slapstick humour. This is counterbalanced by the cut aways to the aged Moustafa as he recounts the events, his love and loss of both his loves - Gustav and the spritely young baker, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). Such moments are rife with mourning and become the film's most anchoring scenes that make for the heaviest moments in what from the offset could have been Anderson's lightest outing yet. The humour is pitch perfect, largely thanks Fiennes's turn in a truly inspired character such as Gustav (his effortless reciting of poetry throughout never loses its comic hold) yet this is again neutralised by the oppressive darkness brought by the murderous hitman Joplin (Willem Defoe) who's out for Gustav's blood. This brutal turn from Defoe's hitman and the swan song like recital from Moustafa are harmonised in the arrival of a Nazi-like militia that casts a shadow over the golden years told thus far. This malevolent force destroys this way of life personified by Gustav and buries it forever much like the fallen aristocracy in Visconti's The Leopard (1963).

With an ensemble cast to rival all casts assembled before it The Grand Budapest Hotel is an uneven affair due to its vast attention span but one that manages to retain a dark and sad resonance thanks to a finely built mythology weaved in throughout. And, of course, the ghost of Kumar Pallana, the Anderson regular and dear friend who was sadly lost last October who's lack of presence looms over this tale of pain and awe. 

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