Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/8/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

Recently I was at a tag sale when I spotted a children’s book which looked familiar to me. Picking it up I realized that it was a decommissioned library book with Dewey Decimal sticker still intact on the spine and that it was, in fact, a book which I remembered checking out of the library a dozen times or more as a child. I ran my hand over its buckram cover, frayed corners, and weather-beaten, heavily broken-in pages, seemingly softened by the oil from a thousand children’s fingertips as they feverishly thumbed through it over the years. The title, pictures, captions, and the font all seemed vaguely familiar to me and even comforting; the book’s pleasantly sweet, slightly musty smell brought back memories. Sure enough, as I turned to the endpaper, I discovered a library card in its familiar Manila sleeve. As I slid it out I scanned through the names to see if… could it possibly be the same one from my youth?

No, I did not find my name, but that did not alter the essential nature of the experience for me: communing, so to speak, with something from my past; something which, like myself, was once young and new.

A similar quality—the interaction with a shabby-yet-redolent past which yields unexpected and unforeseen insights—could be said to be sprinkled liberally throughout the work of director Wes Anderson, who is not only the cinema’s foremost purveyor of fantastically-tinged comedies about lost youth and the perspectives brought on by aging but, at this point, almost an institution unto himself, much like the title subject of his latest, extraordinary effort, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

The story—introduced through a series of ingenious framing devices—concerns an older man (F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960’s looking back on his youthful adventures in the fictional central European country of Zubrowka, in a time roughly around the 1930’s. Zero Moustafa (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) is an orphan and the newly inducted, wide-eyed lobby boy of the revered Grand Budapest Hotel, a bustling top-tier mountain retreat for Europe’s elite, and Monsieur Gustave (the nonpareil Ralph Fiennes) is the head concierge and his boss.

Gustave, as Zero soon discovers, is a whirling dervish of activity, and the epicenter of the hotel’s daily life, the very glue which holds everything together. Gustave, it turns out, is also popular with the ladies—those of the geriatric set that is, such as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, or “Madame D” (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), who clings to him in her old age for his charm, looks, and impeccable sense of taste. Zero and Gustave become fast friends and when news of Madame D.’s death abroad reaches them it trumps even the forecast of imminent war in Europe. In her will she leaves to Gustave a priceless painting—”Boy with Apple”—which is coveted by her jealous children, especially Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero return to the hotel with painting in hand and later, on trumped-up testimony, Gustave is imprisoned for the murder of Madame D.

The remainder of the story concerns Zero’s first love—an apprentice cake maker named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave’s escape from prison, and Gustave and Zero’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the rise of fascism in Europe, Dmitri, and Dmitri’s bloodthirsty henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), as well as their efforts to finally prove Gustave’s innocence and establish once and for all who the real owner of the Grand Budapest really is.

Wes Anderson burst upon the scene with the impishly exciting BOTTLE ROCKET in 1996 before making career-defining works in RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Thereafter began a period of deep introspection for Anderson where he made the strangely discordant THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)—a bit of rock star-like navel-gazing—and the oddly affecting but not totally satisfying THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007). Adapting Roald Dahl’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX in 2009 as an animated film may have at least freed Anderson to seek new paradigms for storytelling—instead of making films about characters grounded in any sense of reality he seemed to finally embrace pure, unalloyed fantasy… yet fantasy grounded in the real and with a sense of the achingly familiar about it. 2012 brought the wondrous surprise MOONRISE KINGDOM—a sort of comeback picture for Anderson though he had not really gone anywhere—a film of hilarious invention and deep meaning.

The Grand Budapest Hotel—a rollicking, old-school buddy picture—continues this fascinating trajectory for Anderson and his focus on storybook settings. The film’s framing device specifically reflects his obsessions with the transformative aspects of literature on young readers and the film itself was specifically influenced by the work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Anderson—much like Monsieur Gustave—remains a bottomless source of invention and a tireless perfectionist, changing décor, for example, as effortlessly as the film’s ratio to fit the tenor of the time, from earth-tones, wood paneling, and CinemaScope to represent the 60’s, to bright wool carpets, pencil moustaches, and the postage stamp-shaped Academy ratio (think of films like GONE WITH THE WIND or CASABLANCA, made before the advent of “widescreen”) to represent the 30’s.

The film itself is a paean to mainly pre-World War II European films, such as, but not limited to, Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, and just about anything directed by German great Max Ophüls. The score—by French composer Alexandre Desplat—is filled with the ringing sounds of the Russian balalaika which helps to accentuate the film’s undercurrent of insistent yearning and even pining for the past.

The bravura camera work (courtesy of frequent Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman) features hair-pin 90- and 180-degree turns, lightning-fast dolly-in, -out, and lateral tracking shots, as well as Anderson’s trademark tableaux—shots composed in flattened perspective but with such surprising stores of depth and density of meaning that they seem more like a beautiful, ornate cake (like those made in the film’s fictional bakery, Mendl’s). From every angle it may appear a little different but slice into it and one is presented with endless layers—alternating cake, frosting, cake, etc… delicate, petite, and impossibly sweet.