Monday, February 17, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This delirious operetta-farce is an eerily detailed and very funny work from the savant virtuoso of American indie cinema, Wes Anderson. It is set in the fading grandeur of a preposterous luxury hotel in an equally preposterous pre-war central European country, the fictional Zubrowka. This kind of milieu – the hotel spa or sanatorium occupied by mysterious invalids, chancers or impoverished White Russians – was loved by Thomas Mann and Vladimir Nabokov, but the closing credits reveal that the director has been specifically inspired by Stefan Zweig, author of Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl. In fact, the movie's moustachioed star Ralph Fiennes does rather resemble Zweig.

Stefan Zweig, never entirely happy with movie adaptations of his work, might however have been baffled by this personal homage, just as Roald Dahl might have been by Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox. The way that Anderson supersaturates every square inch of his film's intricate fabric, every sofa covering, every snow-capped peak, every word of every sans-serif lettered notice, with loving comedy is something that the author might not have understood or cared for. But Anderson's brilliantly crafted forms are something other and something better than pastiche.

Wes Anderson is sometimes accused of building dioramas or puppet theaters rather than movies, of being more concerned with production design and with a tone of mannered or precious “kidult” whimsy than with telling a story. There’s an element of truth to that criticism, and indeed that tendency reaches its apotheosis in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” an elaborate and delightful work of tragicomic confectionery set at an imaginary resort in an imaginary country (partly constructed with miniatures) that depicts the interwar years in Europe largely as a set of high-society high jinks out of 1930s Hollywood comedies. Anderson’s cast features one of Ralph Fiennes’ best performances and is loaded with peculiar delights, including cameos by Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. His script is loaded with zingers and divided into chapters with on-screen titles, while the camerawork — by Robert Yeoman, shooting on 35mm film, of course — whips around the set like Bugs Bunny outrunning Elmer Fudd. This is one of Anderson’s funniest and most fanciful movies, but perversely enough it may also be his most serious, most tragic and most shadowed by history, with the frothy Ernst Lubitsch-style comedy shot through with an overwhelming sense of loss.

I can fully understand that Anderson’s overdecorated, overstylized and highly self-conscious movies aren’t for everyone, but at least some of the criticism rests on a faulty philosophical or aesthetic footing. Do movies made in a more naturalistic mode, like mainstream comedies and dramas with their formulaic three-act plots, actually do a better job of reproducing human relationships or social reality? What about movies set in outrageously artificial universes, like action films or thrillers, where we simply agree to overlook the fact that everything that happens is wildly implausible? To move the question to a larger frame, since when are the movies supposed to create a convincing simulacrum of reality? American cinema, which remains the medium’s dominant model, hardly ever does and hardly ever has.

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