By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

The Torontonian Reviews: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

budapest1Having continuously refined his style to the point where it is now immediately identifiable, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel sees the American auteur’s signature meticulousness at its highest level of detail and affectation, and fans of his work will know that that is a Very Good Thing. If you’ve previously found these affectations to be pretentious instead of cute, you may be out of luck here; otherwise, this picture is very, very funny. Speaking strictly in terms of dialogue, it’s clear that Hotel’s Ralph Fiennes is to Wes Anderson as Christoph Waltz is to Quentin Tarantino, which is another way of saying that both directors have found the perfect actor to deliver their stilted monologues with comedic panache.

The Grand Budapest Hotel frames its narrative like a Matryoshka doll, nesting the main story inside two other ones. At the top of the film is a girl clutching a book with the same title as the movie; coincidentally, this book tells about an author’s (Jude Law) fateful dinner with Zero Moustafa, who at a much younger age was the lobby boy to flamboyant hotel proprietor Gustave H. (Fiennes) in the 1930s. A caper surrounding a fictional painting brings Gustave and Zero closer together as friends, and we watch with pleasure as the two pair up to investigate the murder of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) and the sensitive matter of her estate. Like Moonrise Kingdom before it, the latter half of the film proceeds to break loose and gain speed, toppling Anderson’s house of cards with precise theatricality.

17-the-grand-budapest-hotel-2As we slip between the present to the past (1960s) to the older past (1930s), Anderson opts to switch between three distinct aspect ratios. Whether or not this accomplishes anything artistically productive will be up to you; personally, it’s kind of neat to watch a film primarily viewed in 1.33. Ultimately, however, the decision to shoot each timeline differently echoes the same obsessive rigidity seen elsewhere in Anderson’s ordered chaos, and in that sense it works. The aspect ratio is just one element to the film’s magnificent production design, which riffs on 1930s history and holds some gorgeous, striking set pieces. It’s a lot of fun to fall into.

If over his filmography Anderson’s characteristically juvenile protagonists have slowly matured or simply become smarter, it is an aspect of his authorial style that has evolved for the better. Fiennes’ Gustave H. is an excellent Anderson archetype; his snippy air of superiority is undercut by a childish sensitive side, and the contrast is typically very humorous and witty. Fiennes does an impeccable job with the material here, which is long-winded but very quotable. Similarly, it will be well-deserved when Tony Revolori, the young actor playing Zero Moustafa in the 1930s, enjoys a break-out following Hotel.

For every casting decision The Grand Budapest Hotel gets right, though, it would seem that one of the biggest things holding Anderson back is his insistence to work with the same pool of actors. Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum—it’s not that these players aren’t great in most everything they do (Anderson’s past films included), but the American accents peppered throughout this movie seem out of place, too self-referential, and perhaps a little lazy. Each of these actors are suitable, but the rich, textured accents heard here by Ralph Fiennes, Mathieu Amalric, and Léa Seydoux remind that the American cameos could have been better than just “fine” or “okay” in a movie set in a fictional European country, and I’m wondering if Wes Anderson is limiting himself by playing the family reunion game with each outing.

Still, the casting here is a minor issue—these are cameos, after all. Everything else about The Grand Budapest Hotel is so finely tuned that if you don’t enjoy it, it’s unlikely because of an underwhelming script, miscalculated pacing, or anything else that generally poisons a production. Rather, this feature is one of the rare, justifiable examples of filmmaking where you can point to one person and feel entirely comfortable blaming solely them, claiming that his approach just isn’t your cup of tea.

If Anderson’s fastidiousness isn’t your thing, I’d nevertheless make a point of seeing this film anyway. What is most interesting (and important) about his work is that even his weakest features include things relatively forgotten in American cinema, like a mastery of mise-en-scène, engaging camera pans and tracking, and dollhouse master shots. I am more or less tired of the tautological maxims offhandedly summarizing Anderson’s career (paraphrased as “Wes Anderson makes Wes Anderson movies”) but admittedly, Hotel is his most recognizable work to date. Fortunately, it’s also one of his grandest.

One Response to “The Torontonian Reviews: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”

  1. mike says:

    I don’t think it’s right to say that Wes Anderson has “continuously refined his style to the point where it is now immediately identifiable”. Rather, it was immediately identifiable right out of the gate. Almost miraculously so. He’s never made a film you could mistake for any other director.

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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution