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The game but losing battle waged by Old World grace and refinement against 20th century totalitarian thuggery is sympathetically portrayed by Wes Anderson via both arch and sophisticated farce in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With an attention to design detail that now has perhaps morphed from a preoccupation into a mania, this is as densely aestheticized an experience as has come from a quasi-mainstream American filmmaker in many a moon. In a very appealing if outre way, its sensibility and concerns are very much those of an earlier, more elegant era, meaning that the film’s deepest intentions will fly far over the heads of most modern filmgoers. Fox Searchlight can hope that the work’s boisterous, sometimes bizarre humor, as played by a colorful cast, will be sufficient to attract a sizable slice of the audience that made Anderson’s last film, Moonrise Kingdom, his second-biggest hit. The elegant comedy had its world premiere as the opening night attraction at the Berlin Film Festival.
As the critic Andrew Sarris once wrote of Ernst Lubitsch, the all-time master of urbane, naughty screen comedy, “For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.” Anderson adopts a very similar view here. While hardly closing his eyes to — and, in fact, embracing — the mischief, vulgarity and even criminality in which people of all stripes can indulge, he nonetheless takes to heart a time and place where a hierarchy of taste, culture, speech and overall refinement was paramount (and, indeed, Paramount, in Lubitsch’s case).
But while the society may be high, the comedy is low, the talk vulgar. In a backwardly leap-frogging narrative that begins with an author-narrator (Tom Wilkinson) promising to relate the story “exactly as it happened,” we are transported back to 1968, when the very same writer (Jude Law now) is invited to sup in the cavernous and nearly empty dining hall of a once-fashionable spa resort in the Republic of Zubrowka now reduced to communist-era inelegance. His host is the erstwhile owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), a stylish storyteller who, in turn, flips the calendar back to 1932 to relate how he came to the hotel and, eventually, into a fortune before soldiers and tyranny came crushing down upon the old way of life.
From the first moment, there’s no mistaking who made this film. Constant lateral tracks, push-ins, whip-pans, camera moves timed to dialogue, title cards, chapter headings, miniatures, use of stop-action, fetishization of clothing and props, absurdist predicaments — all the techniques Anderson has honed over the years — are used to pinpoint effect here. He even changes aspect ratio depending upon the era in which the action takes place; widescreen for 1968, the boxy 1.37:1 format for the 1930s and 1.85:1 for the later action. The effect is lively and expressive.
At the center of Mr. Moustafa’s yarn is Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the all-powerful concierge at the titular establishment during its glory years between the two world wars. Supremely efficient and privileged with many secrets, Gustave runs the place like a martinet, dresses, behaves and speaks impeccably but incongruously uses expletives that startle coming from the mouth of such a proper chap.
Perhaps also contrary to recommended practice, Gustave makes a point of bedding many of the female guests, most notably the ancient and loaded Madame D. (a fabulously aged and bedecked Tilda Swinton), in whose fortune he wouldn’t mind partaking once the grande dame takes her leave. Once she does, all sorts of odious characters come out of the woodwork in a cutthroat race to claim her inheritance, led by her fascistic son Dmitri (a threatening Adrien Brody) and his leather-jacketed enforcer Jopling (Willem Dafoe), each of whose fingers are memorably adorned by skull-shaped silver rings.
The semi-absurdist competition for loot is festooned with baggage both personal and political while being played out in madcap style that involves Gustave’s pursuit by a military police captain (Edward Norton), furtive train travel, imprisonment, an escape led by a bald, tattooed convict (Harvey Keitel), an appeal to the nuttily preposterous Society of the Crossed Keys, a secret organization of top European concierges led by Bill Murray, and a crazy and delightfully unreal high-speed ski chase.
Accompanying Gustave through all the zany mayhem is young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who is ostensibly undergoing his apprenticeship as a trainee lobby boy during this tumultuous period. A refugee from somewhere in the Middle East, Zero proves himself a quick learner, a resourceful partner and worthy protege for Gustave and, ironically, a non-European who, better than anyone else in the later years, embodies the old values in a so-called classless (and unclassy) new world that considers them best forgotten.
Anderson’s style can as easily be praised for being formal, rigorous and precise as it can be criticized for seeming artificial, fastidious and fussy; especially here, applied to a tale set in Ruritanian Europe of 80 years ago rather than the United States, his approach may well seem off-putting and weird to the general public.
But more discerning viewers will perhaps respond to the underlying air of melancholy and regret for the passing of a time marked by certain social niceties, subtler sophistication in relations between the sexes and an appreciation for the art of living, concerns the writer-director no doubt values in the work of the great Austrian writer of a century ago, Stefan Zweig, whose inspiration Anderson credits onscreen as a prime instigation for this project. Such an influence is a rare thing for a younger American filmmaker to fall under, let alone make use of in his work, and only a minority will respond to it. But it’s very much there.
To this end, Anderson, who devised the story with Hugo Guinness, is very well-served by his key collaborators, most notably the wildly resourceful production designer Adam Stockhausen, ever-inspired costume designer Milena Canonero, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, hair, makeup and prosthetic designer Frances Hannon, editor Barney Pilling and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose energetic work meshes very effectively with swaths of classical and ethnic music.
Led by the impeccable, flamboyant and sometimes profane Fiennes, the cast goes calculatedly over the top with aplomb; Abraham and Revolori supply civility while degrees of stylish nastiness are offered by Brody, Dafoe and Norton. Saoirse Ronan portrays a young bakery apprentice whose large facial birthmark bears a striking resemblance to the map of Mexico.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (opening night)
Opens: March 7 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Indian Paintbrush, Studio Babelsberg, American Empircal
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriter: Wes Anderson; story by Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness; inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Executive producers: Molly Cooper, Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Alexander Desplat
Rated R, 100 minutes
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