Monday, April 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Wes Angerson, USA, 2014)

Wes Anderson's latest is the most developed example yet of his diorama-style, meticulously curated mode of filmmaking.  In Budapest, he leaves out nothing; the film has wistful nostalgia, wrenching melancholy, antic humor, history, politics, romance, suspense, and even a few jolting moments of horror.  It's a feast of a movie experience, and it's immensely enjoyable.  As with all Anderson films, a ticket buys admission to a fully developed world, intensely interior and yet utterly recognizable in its relation to our own.  It's a bit like getting a private, midnight tour at a great museum; it allows one to personally savor a place, and an experience, of surpassing splendor.

The film spins its web of associations wider and more intricately than any previous Anderson picture, and it's in this characteristic that it is most interesting to contemplate.  Previously, all of Anderson's films, thematically and story-wise, dealt with families. They were, to one degree or another, about the relationships that exist and change between people who are bound together, either by blood or experience or custom, into something resembling a family.  There's family in this one, as well - both Zero Moustava and Gustave H. are orphans, and they become, over the course of the story, elective brothers.  But the relationships here are more complicated, and they are tested, changed, and eventually sundered by forces that are larger then they can comprehend: the toothed gears of history.

It does seem, to some extent, that this film is an American's idealized, imagined version of the refinement and sophistication of a bygone Europe.  Anderson's trademark humor, which frequently tilts into bawdiness, suggests a coarser side to the world and the characters; even Gustave H. is shown as being capable of posturing.  Is this a sign of a deeper awareness, even a subtle critique of the decadence and exploitation that lurked beneath the candied exteriors, or just a coloring of humor?  After all, Moustava, in his elder years, remarks as much; Gustave H.'s world is largely his own creation, imagined as part of an almost-forgotten past.  Perhaps this is the mechanism that underlies all coniousseurship, even all style; one creates an ideal out of whole cloth, and imagines, since there is no readily available model, that it is a reference to a former time, when things were better, kinder, brighter, more vital, whatever.

In this, there is an affinity between this film and Allen's Midnight in Paris.  Both films acknowledge the temptation of nostalgia, the yearning for bygone days that never really existed.  Nostalgia is a powerful, even overwhelming force; at its worst, it can function as a kind of vortex of narcissism, positing the past as an individually created place in time, a repository for desires, dreams, ideals that simply cannot cohere in the tumultuous, rapidly-changing, and perennially disappointing present. 

But so is Anderson complicit in this, even as he offers a critque of it?  It may be that there isn't enough acknowledgement of the rot of post (and even pre) WWI, which was rife with the holdovers of a world of royals, blood oaths, the remains of an "honor" culture hiding behind a veneer of bourgeois respectability.  After all, the wealth that built such grand artifices as the Budapest was the spoils of some exploitation or another, be it Africa, the West Indies, or the virtual slave labor of generations or peasants.

Zero as a character goes a long way in relieving some of this pressure; in the great scene between him and Gustave, after the prison break, he asserts a moral truth and a political awareness that's too easily glossed over, even today, in questions of nationality and migration.  He moved because he had to.  Because of a war (that was likely, in some way, related to the predations of European colonial power), an event, with all of the horror and sorrow that the word entails, of which Gustave, in his cushy, insular, "civilized" enclave, knows precisely nothing. Moustava speaks most eloquently as the voice of history, exposing in Gustave the ugly cultural chauvanism that has been a scourge across Europe for hundreds of years.  Ignorance, combined with fear, combined with the harsh exigencies of the world outside the aristocratic palaces, creates hate.  It's a grave sin that Gustave recognizes immediately, and apologizes effusively for.

There is, finally, a briskness to this film that has the feeling of breeziness.  It's a minor, but significant, irritant, in that it points to a graver pitfall that Anderson mostly avoids - the approach of the tourist.  Elements of the story - certain characters, like Adrien Brody's Dmitri, are virtual cartoons, played for punchlines and not much else.  This is an odd deficiency for the movie to have, since there are other moments, like the train being stopped and the passengers hassled by Naziesque thugs, that adequately portray the deep menace of the times.  It may be that Anderson felt he needed more gags, and a more obvious villain, or it may just be that he got so hooked on the details of his adventure in Zubrowka that he didn't bother with more coloring in the characters; certainly, Gustave and Zero have depth.  It's a minor bug.  The movie is excellent, finely tuned fun. 

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