Who’s got the throat-slitter?
by Thom Yee
I’ve been writing reviews for long enough now that it’s one of the things I’ve become associated with amongst my circles of friends, family and confidantes, and so sometimes they’ll ask me what movie they should see. To which I, of course, recoil in shock, disbelief and horror, with the reply, “… You mean you’re not reading my reviews? You mean you’re not… keeping up with what I’m doing?!! You mean… you’re not… respecting… my work?!!!!” After a good… oh, forty minutes or so, of yelling and screaming and crying and accusing and bringing back old grudges — drama — things usually settle down, apologies are exchanged, and I get down to the dense and dangerous, blood red game of… uh, talking about movies I like.
If you ever asked me to recommend a movie for any occasion, any occasion at all, I would probably never recommend a Wes Anderson movie. Not unless you specifically mentioned his name or work during the course of the conversation. There are large, vast swathes of the populace that should never see a Wes Anderson movie, that have trouble recognizing when movies (and stories) have deeper meanings, that don’t understand that Transformers movies are quantifiably bad. There are also normal people, and even a lot of them shouldn’t see a Wes Anderson movie either.
Watching a Wes Anderson movie is like going back to your rosiest childhood moments, only with all of the baggage that your adulthood has incurred. They’re like vaguely remembering the foggiest, most distant memories of every children’s story you’ve ever cherished, and recognizing them for their genius is like a trick of the light — that one perfect moment that if you happened to look away at the wrong time, you might never understand. At the same time, on those odd occasions when you hear people call their friend Stephen “Stevesy” or say “cuss yeah” instead of “f*ck yes”, people like me wonder if we’ve finally found a place to call home. Wes Anderson movies are a true oddity, a mix of grand stories told on a tiny scale just as often as they are intimate stories told on the largest. Anderson’s work is still, sparse, minimalistic, and yet detailed and alive in a way that few films ever realize.
They’re also just plain weird and not very exciting, many of them more than a little overrated, and I never feel much of a sense of urgency to see a Wes Anderson movie without a specific reason. Right now that reason is Best Picture Oscars coverage.
In a story nearly beyond memory, and a place perhaps no one’s ever been to, and a world that may never have existed, the Grand Budapest Hotel, one of many such grand hotels in 1932, operated and thrived in the [fictional] Republic of Zubrowka, serving a privileged clientele under the watchful eye of its devoted concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Or rather we’re told it operated and thrived in 1932, as narrated by the mysterious owner of the now aging hotel, the infamous Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), in 1968. Or rather we gather this from the works of the famous author of our tale (Jude Law and later [and earlier] Tom Wilkinson), recorded in 1985 and relayed back to us sometime in the ill-defined present. In any case, Monsieur Gustave runs (or ran) the Grand Budapest with a kind spirit and a ruthless efficiency, personally attending to the needs of its many elderly women guests while managing its staff at the highest levels of grandeur, formality, decorum and discretion. One day, the hotel’s newest lobby boy, a young Zero (Tony Revolori), brings news to Gustave that one of his favoured guests, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), has died under mysterious. Travelling to her side, the two arrive at the reading of her will, finding, to the shock of all involved, that Madame D had left the valuable painting — Boy with Apple — to Gustave, to the dismay of and enraging her remaining family, led chiefly by her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who vows that he shall not leave with the piece. Under cover of night, Gustave and Zero escape with Boy with Apple, leading directly to his arrest and the body of our tale.
Given its premise, there are a number of ways the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel could proceed, but certainly the chief objective (if not goal) of this and all of Wes Anderson’s works is laughter. Whether or not the director’s storytelling elicits laughs, languor or listlessness (as are the primary feelings one should have when watching), certainly all of his films thus far can be most easily identified as comedies, and I should say upfront that if you don’t find the following the proper combination of riotous and rye, then The Grand Budapest Hotel may not be for you:
The absurdist spirit of that scene forms the backbone of the entire piece, and it’s an understanding of that spirit that should tell you whether or not you’ll appreciate the film or whether I, by this point, may have prevented you from reaching a calamitous waste of time and/or money.
A big part of what makes a Wes Anderson film so recognizable is its rich visuals, where a clear attention to every detail establishes these fanciful worlds with complete and utter conviction. There are tiny bits of minutiae throughout most every scene, many operating far beyond any normal level of consciousness, whether it’s a shoe-shine boy at the film’s extreme periphery, the taxidermied bear at the reading of the will, or Edward Norton’s head peaking into a scene at a pace you wouldn’t notice if not for the relative stillness of everything else in the frame. Though these side elements contribute to the film’s overall realization, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, possibly more importantly, also the type of film that gives itself space for the sake of its own storytelling, often carefully and adeptly stopping itself mid-stream for such flourishes as a space-time shifting moment to make a simple statement like “because they were” in explanation of why Gustave’s elderly women companions were always blonde.
Visually, the film is both stunning and subdued, each shot composed with a clear symmetry that belies its obvious beauty. Though shot largely in a full-screen, 4:3 aspect ratio, one is never distracted by that choice, and while it obviously contributes to the feel of the piece, it also fairly quickly dissolves into something one also doesn’t particularly contemplate. Similarly, its colour palette, full of almost cartoonishly harsh lights and darks and otherworldly pastelles, contributes both to a sense of the scene’s purpose and to the film’s fabled qualities.
Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to a wide variety of characters with parts large and small, and in an almost perverse (and probably relatively wrong) way, at least looking at the film’s poster, it kind of reminded me of a Guy Ritchie movie, themselves often preceded by a lengthy introduction such as the following:
Of course, Wes Anderson and Guy Ritchie movies lie in many ways at opposite ends of the spectrum (even if they both involve more uses of the word “f*ck” than one might initially expect), where in Anderson’s work the characters are introduced a little bit more organically (i.e., when called for), even if it comes at the expense of such a cool montage. In any case, the world of the Grand Budapest seems filled with the kinds of characters who would chase in the direction of their prey’s belt-mounted signal lights rather than the direction their prey actually ran, not necessarily because they’re stupid, and mostly because it’s funny. The film goes far beyond the superficialities of “casting”, instead calling upon nearly all of Anderson previous film’s best featured players to inhabit its classical Eastern European setting, including such luminaries as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson in many of its smaller parts, each coming together so well in their roles that it almost feels less like they were chosen and more like the individual actors, over the course of their careers, slowly became the people they needed to be inhabit this world. Roles such as Fiennes’ Gustave or Jeff Goldblum’s Deputy Kovacs would be both nearly impossible to imagine in any other actors’ hands, and at the same time not nearly as well realized if the two were still possessed of their ‘90s-era good looks.
Whimsy isn’t a word I’ll typically bandy about with wreckless and carefree abandon (nor is such abandon my usual modus operandi), but it’s probably the best word to describe The Grand Budapest Hotel. Like most of Wes Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest is almost entirely a flight of fancy, in this case skirting around its heavier topics of murder and war in favour of absurdist humor, preposterous storytelling and the tragically ludicrous. Sort of like when a clown dies, it sometimes makes you feel sick in the most wonderful, wonderful way.
Essentially, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in so perfectly capturing a feeling of lost childhood, creates an overwhelming sense of longing for a finer time, even if it’s a place that most of us have never been to, many of us have never been told about, and that may never have been. Beyond that feeling, it’s the film’s careful and masterful tempering against the abject horrors of reality, in this case the film’s impending war, that make it so emotionally resonant and, ultimately, meaningful.
I had previously thought that in the future I shan’t be reviewing any more Wes Anderson films. For you see, while each and every one is different, one needn’t consider any one more than any other. To be sure, I had thought, should this fact ever change, certainly something dreadful must have occurred. However, and in this case, The Grand Budapest Hotel has proven itself one of the greatest, perhaps most substantial, and certainly most clearly meaningful of his works, and I therefore must step back and re-evaluate and give each of his works its own room in which to dwell, in their crapulence and trivialities, peculiarities and commonalities, trivialities and fatalities, and — oh, f*ck it. Just watch the movie.
The Grand Budapest Hotel final score: 9.5
On the Edge
- Also starring Mathieu Amalric, a.k.a., the least-threatening Bond villain of all time.
- A tontine, of course, being a contract where the last surviving recipient becomes the sole possessor, and, of course, being yet another thing I know of from watching The Simpsons.
- Kudos to anyone who caught all the other Simpsons references I laced throughout this review.
- “Did he just throw my cat out the window?”
- I couldn’t really find a natural place in the review to talk about her, but Saoirse Ronan!
- Honestly, The Grand Budapest Hotel would probably have been third on my 2014 Top Five Movies if I had seen it earlier (i.e., behind Whiplash, ahead of Godzilla, and pushing Gone Girl out).
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