Wednesday, January 7, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#5: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Brings the Evolution of Wes Anderson's Filmography Into Darker Territory

This is the seventh in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too. that Owen Wilson? In a Wes Anderson film? Who would have guessed?!

There is nobody in film doing quite what Wes Anderson is doing. Not even considering his smart and quirky scripts, Anderson’s inimitable visual style makes him one of the most daring filmmakers out there. While his work is certainly divisive, and some projects succeed better than others (I know most consider it among his best work, but The Royal Tenenbaums really falls flat for me), you can always count on Anderson to do something interesting and charming. He’s a visionary in every sense of the word. And if you’re not a fan of Anderson, I’d ask that you consider how few times you could see a still shot from a film and identify exactly who the director is. Wes Anderson certainly would fall into that category.

But despite my love of Wes Anderson, I must admit I felt some trepidation when I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. It just aggressively like Wes Anderson: The Movie. The bright, symmetrical shots, and wide array of cameos made the film look like it would be a rather annoying form of self-flattery. I was still curious to see it, but I worried. What if Anderson got complacent? No matter how unusual his visual style, seeing it over and over again would cause some major diminishing returns. So, I went into The Grand Budapest Hotel thinking I would enjoy it but that it would be exactly what I’ve seen from Wes Anderson before.

One of the trademark quirky and composed shots that Anderson is known for.

And I bet that’s exactly what he wanted his audience to think. Because it made it all the more surprising and satisfying to see Anderson delve into darker territory. This film feels very different from what we've seen of Wes Anderson before, but in a way that still feels true to its creator. It feels like the film Anderson has always been trying to create--perhaps the film of his that best represents him so far. Seeing Anderson try new things is exciting to me, and shows that innovation does not have a limit--and the darker territories Wes Anderson brings The Grand Budapest Hotel into serve only to enhance what we already know he does so well.

This summer, Wes Anderson brings you: Pastels Are the New Black

This is not to say that Anderson's work has not always been dark. As quirky as Anderson makes his characters, they tend to be sad and angry, or at the very least confused about their place in the world at large. But, that's what makes his characters realistic. The colorful world in which these characters live ends up elevating their more real flaws into charming territory. The common level of thinking is that his films are cutesy, as evidenced by this brilliant SNL parody of what it would look like if Wes Anderson directed a horror film (which, I would totally watch). And The Grand Budapest Hotel certainly fits this description. And yet, it has moments which are decidedly un-cutesy. At one point a cat is thrown out a window and shown splattered on the ground. At one point, a characters fingers are chopped off and shown falling to the ground. At one point we see a character's severed head. At one point a prisoner goes on a rampage and murders about five people with a knife. These are moments one would expect more from Saw than from Wes Anderson, and the effect is striking. After all, they're still shot in the beautiful and colorful world of Wes Anderson. They're moments you can't believe are happening in front of you, which makes them stand out. These moments of the grotesque are absolutely mesmerizing--they feel like they should be so out of place and yet work so perfectly. If anything, the over-the-top violence adds to the cartoony aesthetic.

I didn't feel like including a picture of a severed head, so here are Gustave and Zero carrying some cakes!

Wes Anderson's style is, in some ways, personified by The Grand Budapest Hotel's main subject: Monsieur Gustave H., played by Ralph Fiennes. Gustave, the concierge of the titular hotel, and is fascinating to watch. We only ever see Gustave as he was perceived by his protege, a lobby boy named Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) and, as such, we only ever see him at work. And he takes his work very seriously--putting on various charming airs in an impression to please. He subsists on a series of manufactured eccentricities--he often recites long passages of poetry, he wears copious amounts of one specific brand of perfume, and always speaks with a certain practiced flair. It is never clear why he acts in such an ostentatious way--we learn very little about his background, and it is generally unclear how much of his behavior is real and how much is a facade. Either way, Fiennes makes all of Monsieur Gustave's eccentricities feel incredibly natural, as if this is how all people act. It's a simply wonderful performance--full of charm, but hinting at a more meaningful core.

Ralph Fiennes in his wonderful performance as Monsieur Gustave H.

He is a man of values, and a person who follows his own slate of ethics as he defines them. Gustave is incredibly vain, arrogant, and selfish, yes, but we see he does have a good heart and cares deeply about those around him. Gustave sleeps with old wealthy women, in what seems to be partly for monetary gain, but he is still shown to care about these women all the same. He draws attention to himself shamelessly, and yet he takes every opportunity to thank those around him. Despite all of his  strange behavioral quirks, his defining characteristic is that of kindness. A police officer (Edward Norton) recalls staying at the Grand Budapest as a child and can still remember Gustave's kindness. During the most adorable prison break scene in movie history (this is, after all, Wes Anderson) Gustave takes time out of his escape to thank a prisoner who assists them. And, of course, there's Zero. The relationship between them is lovely, and it is immediately apparent that both will do anything for one another. They share a kindred spirit. When we find out that Zero lost his entire family early in life, one gets a sense that Gustave must have suffered a similar tragedy (which would explain his mysterious past). Much like Wes Anderson's filmography as a whole, Gustave covers his entire being with bells and whistles and other odd things, but those do not define him. What defines him is his tremendous heart and sense of goodness.

Zero and Agatha, OTP

Gustave is, of course, not the only memorable character in the film. There's Agatha, a young baker played by Saoirse Ronan, pictured above, who is Zero's fiancee, who serves as the voice of reason and clearest moral compass in the film. There's a series of fellow hotel concierges who, with Gustave, form a secret order called The Society of Crossed Keys, who only appear briefly and yet feel like they come pre-packaged with rich backstories. There's Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, an attorney played by Jeff Goldblum who admirably serves as one of the least wacky characters in the film.

Jeff Goldblum: inexplicably he most normal actor in this movie.
But the film is perhaps most intriguing in its use of villains, who employ absolutely no subtletly whatsoever. There's Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, played by Adrien Brody, as a villainous man who accuses Gustave for the murder of his wealthy aunt. And then there's J.G. Jopling, an assassin and cohort of Dmitri's played with chilling menace by Willem Dafoe. While there are protagonists and antagonists in Wes Anderson films, Dmitri and Jopling are the first examples of pure evil that he has ever put to screen, and it is not a coincidence that Jopling is to blame for most of the film's most grotesque moments. They are villains of the Dick Dastardly variety--evil just because it is their nature (the only exception I can think of would be the villains in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is also his only adapted work). Antagonists in Wes Anderson films tend to just generally asshole-ish, but these villains are legitimately unsettling. And they are unnerving because they feel so out of place. They are like a disease spreading throughout the colorful world of Anderson and bring a necessary danger to the movie that has been missing in his previous works.

Dmitri, front and center. You can see Jopling lurking most evilly in the back.

Anderson's films tend to focus primarily on simpler stories--while complex thematic ideas are often discussed, the stakes themselves are usually small-scale and personal to the individual protagonists. But, again, Anderson departs from his usual comfort zone with The Grand Budapest Hotel. This time, it feels like an epic, and it takes us on a series of, fittingly, grand adventures in a variety of colorful locations. The stakes, too, are higher. Set against the backdrop of a war that is coming to a head, Zero and Gustave must think of people other than themselves-- a first for Wes Anderson main characters. Zero, for example, thinks of his darling Agatha, who he puts in terrible danger, often inadvertently. Gustave has to think about Zero, but also has to think about the hotel, which constitutes a character in and of itself. With higher stakes, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not only Anderson's most exciting film, but the one that is most focused on story. Anderson's films tend to act as remarkable character studies and, as seen by Fiennes' portrayal of Gustave, this one is as well. But for the first time, Anderson puts the actual act of storytelling first and foremost. The film is, in fact, a love letter to the very idea of storytelling. 
Jude Law as the young author, staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
If he had wanted to, Anderson could have simply made a film about Gustave and Zero. But he doesn't. He makes it a story within a book within a film. The film actually takes place in present day, as a young woman reads from a book called "The Grand Budapest Hotel" in front of the grave of its author (Tom Wilkinson). The author, meanwhile, also does not simply tell the story of Gustave, but instead tells the story of how he went to the hotel as a young man (played by Jude Law) and heard Gustave's story from a Mister Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who is, himself, Zero grown up. So, the film is the story of the woman reading the story of the author who heard the story from Zero who tells him the story of Gustave. If this sounds convoluted, that's because it is. But it makes a little more sense seeing these levels of storytelling play out on film, and is integral to the film's success. Why else would Anderson have included this convention at all, or drawn attention to it by casting someone like Tom Wilkinson to have only a few seconds of screentime? But the idea, to me, was clear. After the events of the film, Zero grows old and only passes this story onto the author much later in his life. The author does not write the book until later in his life either. And the young woman does not read the story until after the author is already dead. So, what's the point? that the story lives on. Wes Anderson's style is not without substance--he makes his film look like a storybook because that's what he wants them to be. That his filmmaking breaks the fourth wall, or that uses obviously composed shots that are arranged more for artistic merit or realism, or that he uses lighting shifts more reminiscent of live theatre than film is meant to draw our attention to the filmmaking, because Anderson never wants us to forget that he is telling us a story. Gustave and the colorful cast that supports him are forever immortalized, both in the film and by the film. 
F. Murray Abraham as a grown-up Zero, sitting in the now rundown Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is speaking to the power that stories can have-- that they travel from person to person and can touch so many lives simply in their telling. When the author makes his trip to the Grand Budapest Hotel and speaks with Mister Moustafa, the hotel is falling apart. The new concierge (Jason Schwartzman) lacks all of the special care that Gustave gave to it. The splendor has worn off. But because of the stories Zero tells, the glory the hotel once held can live on. And because of the stories Wes Anderson tells, the wonderful world that exists in his mind can be shared by audiences forever. The Grand Budapest Hotel--both the hotel and the film--will never go out of style.

I really liked this image but didn't have anywhere to put it in the write-up. get it here. Deal with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment