Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a disenchanting ruin

By Jan Dichter

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When I learned Wes Anderson was making a film set in early 20th-century eastern Europe, I was as intrigued as I was wary about the application of his sensibilities to such a tragic time and place.

Indeed, while his films, with their stylization and detail, have always reveled in their ability to make you feel you’re in a world you already understand, at best these only served as a stage for droll, awkwardly touching human dramas. With “Moonrise Kingdom,” his last film (and first foray into the past), he seemed to have made his masterpiece, exquisitely combining his most affecting themes – childhood, heartache and nostalgia. In “Grand Budapest Hotel,” on the other hand, the method of quirky fakery runs amok in a movie that’s all backdrop, where style triumphs over substance as it has long threatened to do in Anderson’s universe.

Layered with artifice and narrated with novelistic intricacy, “Grand Budapest” is all surface and referential ambience, concerned with little but wearing where it’s been on its sleeve without having really been anywhere. A fictitious war in a fictitious country, “once the seat of an empire,” provides the setting for the convoluted tale of a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes’s Monsieur Gustave).

Like many of Anderson’s protagonists, a man out of step with his day – elegant, perfumed, steeped in etiquette, possessed of a satirically antiquated dignity – Gustave embodies the faded glories of a bygone aristocratic era, and in the eyes of his protégé (newcomer Tony Revolori’s ‘lobby boy’ Zero Moustafa) represents “a faint glimmer of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

In 1932, as their home, “the Republic of Zubrowka” is threatened by a vaguely fascist foreign power, Gustave finds himself framed for murder. Pursued by a generically villainous Willem Dafoe, he teams up with Zero to clear his name and recover a priceless painting with a mysterious document hidden inside it. Ultimately, Gustave’s romantic epoch and their hotel – “too decadent for modern tastes, this charming old ruin” – are vanquished by a rising modern age of totalitarianism in a ham-handed metaphor for the 20th century.

It’s a brisk, elaborately frolicsome caper/jailbreak/murder mystery, which is also a meditation on friendship and betrayal in the twilight of an epoch, as well as Anderson’s most meta-narrative essay yet on the art of storytelling.

Alas, one of the things it isn’t, is funny, which is Anderson’s strong suit. Where his previous films made clever use of significant details to stage bittersweet little follies, this is his first film composed exclusively of “significant details,” so much so that none of it feels significant.

As for the catastrophic traumas and ethnic differences that continue to shape the history of the real eastern Europe, little is said, though their aura is exploited to depict an exotic, mythical “Far East” of “the Continent,” an ahistorical hypostasis of Occident and Orient. The movie speaks with imperial assurance of a world it knows nothing of, and in spite of a couple classic, knowingly wry moments in the script (which themselves tend to a hyper-self-consciousness bordering on self-caricature), Anderson’s trademark whimsical irony and precocious sass are too cartoonish and superficial for such grim themes.

Altogether, the director’s tone, far from supporting a film by itself, is far better suited to what he knows best – the quirky foibles of the narcissistic idle rich. Over and over the movie speaks a little too bluntly of itself, as when one character blurts “will someone tell us what the f*** is going on?!” during the second act, or later, when Zero exclaims that he can’t stop a speeding sled, “I can barely steer.” This is how the movie feels by then, a downhill chase, careening without direction or pause for thought on runners of manic self-importance.

And of course, a cascade of symmetrical framings, taxidermy, ornate titles, daddy issues and increasingly uninteresting cameos by Anderson regulars – this is overreach, simply too much Anderson-isms for one movie. Indeed, he succeeds most when he least resembles himself, as in some unusual sequences set in a museum or the drab, half-deserted hotel of the communist-era frame story.

To Anderson, eastern Europe itself is an “enchanting old ruin.” He banks on its atmosphere, but without a single point of contact with reality. Ironic that even as Arab Spring-esque waves of social unrest and military reaction spread in that region, American cinema should be projecting an image of it that is pure mood.

Like Zero’s drawn-on moustache, everything is for show but never that funny, just light-heartedly inauthentic in a particularly inappropriate setting. Another uncomfortably explicit synecdoche occurs when Gustave is accused of being a “ruthless adventurer.” “Grand Budapest” itself is driven, ambitious, skillful, ingratiating and heartlessly exploitative. Like Gustave, it quotes poetry, but creates none of its own.

Jan Dichter can be reached at [email protected]

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