Monday, June 9, 2014

You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.

I'm not sure how I ended up watching The Grand Budapest Hotel last weekend, but I'm glad that I chose to spend my Saturday afternoon that way.

Wes Anderson's latest film is a story within a story within a story. We begin with a young girl reading a book by 'The Author' (Jude Law). Next, we are taken into the novel itself (set in 1968) and into a particular chapter where 'The Author' meets Zero Moustafa, the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Finally, we dive into Zero's story (set in 1932) about how he came to own the hotel - and about his time with the late, remarkable concierge Monsieur Gustave, played by the witty and ever-talented Ralph Fiennes.

Zero is the hotel's new lobby boy, armed with zero (hence the name) experience but a heart of gold. His adventure begins with the death of Madame D, a wealthy aristocratic woman who frequents the hotel and has a very soft spot for Monsieur Gustave. Upon her death, Gustave suddenly finds himself heir to her mounting fortune - including the priceless painting, Boy with Apple.

Madame D's family, particularly her ill-tempered and foul-mouthed son Dmitri, is furious - how can his family's wealth fall into the hands of a "ruthless adventurer and a con artist who preys on mentally feeble, sick old ladies?" (quote Dmitri).

Dmitri's way of coping with the problem is to frame Gustave for his mother's death and send the bloodthirsty hitman Jopling to retrieve the painting and wipe out all opposition. The film revolves around how Gustave, with his trusty sidekick Zero, attempts to evade the cops and clear his name.

As with all Wes Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is first and foremost a visual spectacle. The aesthetics of each frame leave no room for questioning the amount of thought invested into each shot. Each item of furniture and every extra is prudently placed, contributing in some way to the atmosphere of pre-war Europe and the opulent setting of its grand hotels captured in the film.

Such detail, color and symmetry is masterful - but distracting. Indeed, one cannot watch the prison break without noticing the impeccable linear composition of the whole setting. I suppose such an effect is either delightful or frustrating, depending on individual tastes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel became progressively better as it advanced - the jokes increased, the plot thickened, Zero and Gustave's friendship grew more tender. Ralph Fiennes is truly the highlight of the movie. His character is sharp, eloquent, delightful, ignorant... quite simply one of the "faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity." As the older Zero tells us, "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!" Such grace and perfectly accented "dahlings" is what makes Fiennes' character instantly loveable.

A note on the older Zero - his change in accent is perplexing. That, along with the seemingly arbitrarily thrown in characters are the two aspects of the movie I'm not so crazy about.

It's interesting, however, that the movie takes place in a time when the war is just about to smother Europe. We learn of this through scattered hints - it's on the front page of the newspaper at one point, and of course M. Gustave and Zero are stopped on the train to confront the soldiers twice. But we remain enthralled by the pink-hued magic of the grand hotel and delectable Mendel treats - until the end of the movie seems to throw the whole war situation into perspective. The war certainly isn't the focus of the film, and I wouldn't go so far as to say that Anderson intentionally 'veiled' it, but it nonetheless offers another take on the film.

So, what does the film hope instead to showcase? Perhaps the ancient grandeur of the grand hotels and their "marvelous grace." Perhaps an unlikely friendship transcending age and culture. Probably both. Regardless, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a whirlwind of a film that will leave your imagination and eyes dazzled after a good 1 and a half hours.