Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel: In Praise of the Old World

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a girl paying homage to the novelist of the book she is carrying by visiting his bust in the center of a park in his hometown. By the look of all the trinkets pasted on the unkempt marker, the park, along with the prized author’s bust, has become quite a tourist’s attraction for what seems to be a country that has seen more pleasant years.

The girl proceeds to read her book, with Anderson quickly taking his audience away from the park and into the office of the novelist (played by Tom Wilkinson), explaining the intricacies of his job. While in the middle of his lecture, a little boy interrupts him by threatening to shoot him with a toy gun. He momentarily stops his lecture to threaten the boy, and continues his story.

The novelist, now thirty years younger (now played by Jude Law), is a resident of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the once luxurious home of baronesses and countesses. The hotel is just a shadow of its former glory, with its empty halls being adorned by lackluster guests and snooping employees.

The novelist has taken a fancy on the hotel’s reclusive owner, Zero Moustaffa (played by M. Murray Abraham). The reclusive owner has also taken a fancy on the wandering novelist. Over dinner, the wealthy owner recounts how the hotel came to be part of his dearest possessions.

The hotel owner’s story first takes place inside the palatial room of Madame D. (played by an indistinguishable Tilda Swinton), a very wealthy aristocrat who is about to leave the confines of the hotel. The hotel’s concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, who aptly wears an exterior of propriety while bellowing in bits of naughtiness), along with an army of the hotel’s finest employees, is with her, comforting her before her trip.

Upon her departure, Gustave notices the young Zero Moustaffa (a delightful Tony Revolori who counters Fiennes’ onscreen confidence with impish awkwardness) wearing the hat of lobby boy. Gustave starts to mentor the wide-eyed penniless immigrant, tagging him along in everything he does, including all the misadventures that have yet to happen as a result of Madame D.’s untimely flight from the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Anderson has always occupied his films with a sense of reminiscence, of harking back to days better than the present. His very distinct visual style, with its pleasing mixture of a near-absence of depth and curiously symmetrical framing, enunciates the fantasy out of the many realities he is accomplishing to tell. In a way, Anderson plays a modern and ingenious fabulist, prescribing harsh truths within cleverly told stories that are all too pleasing to immediately disarm.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the ingredients of an escapist fairy tale. It is set in a fictitious country dressed in alpine mountains and courteous upper folk. Its main story has an orphan arriving at an immense amount and finding his one true love while dodging psychotic villains. It is one heck of a caper, featuring a delirious prison break, a hilarious ski chase, and a mystery to keep things stirring in the middle.

However, underneath all the wily artifices of the film, it echoes a very palpable sadness. Its structure of being a story within a story within many more stories articulates how far back in history this tale of stark camaraderie and veritable honor takes place. Its allusion to the Great War that shook Europe partakes of a passing of an era of noble dispositions only to be replaced by noise and barbarity.

Anderson, by abandoning the ease of the 1.37 aspect ratio that better suits his aesthetic idiosyncrasies for the 4.3 aspect ratio that would obviously limit him but would seem to be more appropriate for Zero’s lengthy flashbacks, also gives due respect to the form of storytelling, attributing within his own cinema a desire to be transported back to those supposedly good old days.

History has changed us, Anderson seems to be imparting. We have turned into a people who look upon the past to be reminded of how it is to be human. We travel great lengths to visit monuments to be imparted the virtues of honored heroes. We read novels from decades past to recall ages we were deprived of witnessing. We tell stories and listen to stories being told to perpetuate glorious pasts. Once that has passed, we struggle to live again, ignoring the noise, avoiding the violence, surviving.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is such an ode to the old world, and to those who have immortalized it in words and pictures. Sure, Anderson’s ideal of pre-war Europe is one laced in anachronistic liberties. However, absolute creation is not the intention here. It is his mere act of storytelling, adorned lovingly it with as much of his wild artistry, that punctuates that immense yearning for a world that we can only experience through stories told and retold.

(First published in Rappler.)

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